The Education Funding Debate

The Education Funding Debate

Let’s put this out there right now: I’m a Liberal. I am a rainbow-heart T-shirt-wearing, climate change-embracing, immigrant-loving Lib with a capital “L.” At least, I always thought I was…

Maybe Less Liberal than I Thought…

My foray into reexamining my political bent began innocently enough, with an article in my local newspaper. The front page headline blared, “District Could Lose 18% of State Education Funding Over Next Three Years.” Wow, I thought to myself, that sounds pretty serious. As I read the article, I discovered that our financial situation was part of a broader state-wide plan to revamp education funding. Sparing you the gory (and boring) details, the basic idea was to rob Peter (wealthier districts like mine) in order to pay Paul (poorer districts, which in my state encompasses both urban and rural schools).

My husband and I moved to our district a few years ago, as our oldest was getting ready to start kindergarten. We chose the district because (A) it has a solid tax base which (B) leads to solid schools. In fact, our school district is a staple on World News & Report’s annual “Best High Schools in America” list. We knew when we moved in that we’d be paying higher property taxes than districts in other parts of our area, but that money, in turn, would go directly to our local schools, ensuring their stability and success.

So when I read about the state’s plan to slash that funding – to take our money an reallocate it to districts elsewhere – the progressively-minded liberal in me turned pointedly red in the face.

It’s not that I’m against giving equal opportunity to poorer-performing schools in under-funding districts. Go ahead, increase my state’s income tax or our sales tax, something that’s going to affect all taxpayers equally (or, at least, proportionately). But asking – no, ordering – my school district to take away some of our funding to give to another district seemed blatantly unfair.

Ok, now I know what you’re thinking: how on earth can she fault an already failing education system for being unfair? Isn’t she reaping the rewards of classism? Of her access to good education?

Indeed I am. But I have good reason to worry.

Our Worries

When we moved to our current district, we were coming from a state where education dollars are meted out on a county-wide basis. Although we lived in one of that state’s largest counties, it still encompassed a large area of urban, suburban, and rural dwellers; likewise, it brought together people of all races, creeds, and socio-economic backgrounds. At first, I thought this was wonderful. Then I started hearing stories from inside the school district, from students, parents, teachers, and administrators. The result of spreading the money evenly across every district in the county was that every school could afford to put books in the library; none of the schools could afford to hire the “best” teachers at the expense of a neighboring district; everyone had, in theory, access to the same resources.

But that didn’t mean the county had solved the problem. Because while each school had access to the same resources in the classroom, what the students were bringing into the schools each day were vastly different. Students in more affluent neighborhoods were bringing parents with stable jobs who could provide adequate housing, proper clothing, access to tutors and after school activities, healthcare, and healthy food; students in the less affluent areas were bringing in the baggage of gunfire in their streets, parents who worked two or three jobs to meet ends meet but were rarely home to help with homework, less than adequate healthcare, food, clothing, and housing. In reality, they were coming from two very different worlds.

So, no surprise that the schools attended by the affluent schools did ok; they weren’t great – after all, the district had cut the arts and many languages and upper-tier courses to accommodate funding cuts – but they weren’t failing, either. But the interesting thing was, even though schools in the same county were receiving the same funding, they weren’t performing any better than they were when the financial support was inequitable.

Basically, it boils down to this: our schools aren’t failing because School A spends $2,000 per student and School B spends $4,000. Our schools are failing because poverty is a serious issue in this country, and throwing money at the schools, rather than the problems our children are bringing into the schools – violence, poor nutrition, lack of access to healthcare, little or no preschool, lack of support at home – isn’t going to solve the problem.

Poverty is real. Hunger is real. Sickness is real.

So at the end of the day, I’m still a Liberal. I still believe there are social injustices in the world, but I also realize that these are social injustices that money alone cannot fix. We need to completely change our way of thinking, we need to change the culture. We need to craft policies that will support families and children, to give them the right start, so that, down the line, equal funding can and does make a difference.

Because right now, robbing from Peter to pay Paul isn’t benefiting anybody.

Libby Balke

Libby is a jack of all trades, master of… well, you know how the saying goes. Media consultant by day, mommy by night, you can usually find her with a glass of wine in hand, provided the kids are in bed!

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