Commentary | Education

Lessons—Assessing Money’s Role in Making Schools Better

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[ THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON NOVEMBER 14, 2001 ]

Assessing money’s role in making schools better

By  Richard Rothstein

Many school reforms today are intended to narrow the achievement gap between middle-class and poor children. Holding all pupils to the same high academic standard is one approach. Increasing school funds is another.

Courts in several states have ordered equal spending on schools in communities that differ in wealth. In New York earlier this year, a judge found the state system unconstitutional because it results in less money for city schools compared with suburban ones.

But even if such judicial decisions were fully enforced, equality would remain elusive.

Some advocates of higher standards say that more spending would not raise academic performance. The Bush administration opposes big budget increases in the Senate version of an education bill currently being debated, arguing that more money for schools has not, in the past, produced better results.

But the notion that extra money doesn’t matter would be hard to sell to suburban parents who exert great efforts raising money to supplement what taxes provide to schools.

If graduates must vie for society’s rewards, privileged parents understandably want to position their own children for the competition. For this, maintaining school differentials is as important as high standards. So if city schools improve, suburban parents want their children’s education to improve even more.

This is one reason for the extraordinary growth of private gifts to public schools in wealthier areas. Nationwide, parent contributions lead to smaller classes, enriched curriculum (like theatrical performances), more computers, added college counseling and better-stocked libraries.

These extras put policy makers in a quandary. Private gifts counteract judicial efforts to equalize resources across all social classes. But in a free society, parents should have the right to provide added benefits for their own children. Occasional efforts by school officials to ban private fund-raising have failed, either because parents figure out how to evade the bans or take steps to transfer children to more exclusive private schools.

The dilemma is stark in large, diverse districts where resources of schools attended by the rich should, in principle, equal those of other schools. The Washington suburb of Montgomery County, Md., for example, prohibits affluent schools from hiring additional regular teachers with private money. But wealthier parents have circumvented this effort to equalize spending by financing building improvements, extra library books and even faculty salary increases, euphemistically called appreciation payments.

New York City also prohibits private payments for additional regular classroom teachers, but parents in more affluent neighborhoods achieve a similar result by financing art and music teachers, called “consultants.” Los Angeles gave up trying to enforce its policy that “no donation shall provide a substantial advantage in educational benefits if such benefits cannot be balanced in all schools.”

In wealthy suburbs like Brookline, Mass.; Shaker Heights, Ohio; and Beverly Hills, Calif., parent-sponsored foundations with multimillion-dollar endowments provide extra income for public schools that neighboring cities can’t emulate.

Many urban districts try to compete by enticing corporate donors to provide extra dollars for schools with disadvantaged students. But while this philanthropy helps, it doesn’t bring spending close to amounts in the more affluent suburbs.

Financing extra art, music or computers partly reflects laudable parental ambition for enriched children’s experiences. But middle-class families also buy other private advantages that accomplish nothing for society as a whole, like SAT coaching that typically costs $150 a week. Its only purpose is to give a child an edge over others who may be just as qualified for college but can’t afford cram sessions.

California legislators, disturbed by how suburban SAT tutoring nullified the competitive value of improved scores among urban students, hoped to level the field by financing SAT coaching in low-income schools. State dollars now pay for test preparation classes of 15 to 20, certainly a help, but nothing like the one-on-one tutoring the rich can buy.

Better urban education is an end in itself, even if it can’t keep up with schools in the suburbs. But we’ve come to expect initiatives like more accountablity and equalized school spending to shoulder almost the entire burden of making competition between graduates fully fair.

Schools alone can’t accomplish such leavening. Greater social equality will always have to rely on economic and social tools (progressive tax policies or even affirmative action in employment, for example) to equalize the results of inevitably unequal educations.

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