Get Smart US: Economics 101

Fiscal inequality in schools is the basis of the American caste system
The gulf between employer and employee is wide. CEOs earn seven-figure salaries, while those at the bottom endure the effects of corporate downsizing. But fiscal inequality sets the tone for Joe Worker's life long before he receives his first paycheck -- in fact, it's already in place by the time he gets his first report card.

It hardly needs to be said that schools in the U.S. are separate and unequal. Not only is there an enormous disparity in quality of education between public and private institutions; there's a gulf between public schools in wealthy communities and their overcrowded, underfunded counterparts in poorer neighborhoods. And the toll this takes on underprivileged kids -- not to mention the adults they grow up to be -- is devastating.

The inequitable distribution of tax dollars -- compounded by gridlock at every level of government -- keeps those most sorely in need of a good education from getting one. "Most public schools in the United States depend for their initial funding on a tax on local property," says Jonathan Kozol in Savage Inequalities (HarperCollins). "There are also state and federal funding sources... . But the property tax is the decisive force in shaping inequality. The property tax depends of course upon the taxable value of one's home, and that of local industries."

In the New York area, for example, the nation's largest public school system receives only $8,000 per year for each child. But in suburban areas like Long Island, where expensive homes abound, kids are allocated $10,000 to $15,000 every year. Theoretically, a higher level of state aid to poorer school districts helps make up the difference. But lobbyists from wealthier areas continue to pressure state officials against large sums being spent on city schools, and across-the-board state budget cuts are also hitting education where it hurts.

During the 1988-89 school year, New York State contributed 44.2 percent of city school costs; by 1995-96, the state was providing only 37.2 percent of those expenses. If the next round of proposed budget cuts goes through, the state will contribute even less. This means local districts will have to absorb even greater responsibility, using stopgap cost-cutting measures like study hall instead of teacher-directed instruction. As frustrating as this is to teachers and administrators, the students always suffer worst of all.

At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Education has long attempted to send aid where it's needed the most. Federal funds available under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, along with specifically targeted initiatives -- such as the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities program -- amount to an average of 6 percent of each state's education budget. But America has fallen behind other industrialized countries in quality of education. In 1989, then president George Bush proposed the America 2000 bill, setting admirable but unrealistic national education goals for the year 2000 like "American students will be first in the world in math and science achievement" (in a 1991 ranking of 13-year-olds in 15 countries, the U.S. placed 4th in science) and "Schools will be free of drugs, violence, unauthorized guns, and alcohol." But one controversial aspect of the bill, the school voucher program -- whereby students would be allowed to transfer from public schools to private ones and take their public-school allocations with them -- led to the bill's defeat.

When Clinton came into office, he modified America 2000 by removing the voucher program, renamed it Goals 2000, and in 1994 it passed Congress. Forty-three states have chosen to participate, receiving federal block grants that are regranted to individual schools to implement the new standards. According to a Department of Education statement, "Every [participating] state is using Goals 2000 to support their own effective approach to improve student achievement. In Massachusetts, Goals 2000 funds are being used to support the creation of charter schools. In Kentucky, funds are being used to encourage parental involvement in ongoing reform efforts. In Illinois, challenging standards for student achievement have been set in six core subject areas." Hilda Sanchez, an East Harlem school administrator, concurs: "Goals 2000 comes at a time when there are less and less funds in the schools for professional development programs." But already some members of Congress are hoping to include the program in 1997 budget cuts. Meanwhile, a separate voucher-program bill is now before Congress, which Clinton has threatened to veto.

As one Chicago teacher recently put it, U.S. students take standardized tests, but they don't attend standardized schools. Those tests help decide which students are admitted to which universities. And the difference between the Ivy League and the local community college determines who in our volatile job market signs the paycheck on the front -- and who signs it on the back.

U.S. Department of Education, 202-401-1576,
National Library of Education, 202-219-1692,
American Federation of Teachers, 202-879-4400,
National Education Association, 202-833-4000.
United Negro College Fund, 800-331-2244.
National Consortium for Educational Access, 770-469-6110.
National Alliance of Black School Educators, 202-483-1549.
Council on Career Development for Minorities, 214-631-3677.
National Head Start Association, 703-739-0875.
Call 800-REGISTER to register and vote!

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