School funding, its inequities, and a possible solution

I’m taking this from the point of view of a Texas, but my understanding is that most states have at least some unhappiness over how public schools are funded.

I’ll start with the axiom that public schools are a good thing and should be funded by some form of taxation. This is, of course, a completely debateable proposition, but that’s another whole thread, so please refrain from arguing that specific point in this thread.

Texas has had issues with school funding since I was in middle school. At first, it was the Edgewood case that shot down district by district funding. The problem, as I understand it, is that poor districts bore a disproportionate burden of property tax when it came to funding schools. The areas within a poor district had poor property values, so it took much higher taxes to raise the money necessary to cover school district expenditures. Edgewood, a district in San Antonio and one of the poorest districts in the state, sued (the state, I believe), and won a decision that this form of funding was unacceptable.

So, for the past couple of decades, the state has been working under what’s referred to as the Robin Hood plan. The state determines how much money a district needs. They then skim off the property tax revenues of the richer districts to make up the gap for the poorer districts. Understandably, the parents of the richer districts were upset about this. They wanted their money to stay in their district and benefit their children.

Now, of course, the courts have said that the Robin Hood plan is unacceptable. AFAIK, no other plan has been put forward, and the state is ->|this|<- far from having terms dictated to it. That’s the background. Other states have other problems. California, for instance, has a tough time because Proposition 13, passed around 25 years ago, caps property taxes at the appraised value of the last purchase of the property.

Here’s what I would like to propose:

Reset property taxes to a two-tier state/district plan. First, the state taxes all property at one rate - low enough for the poor areas to afford. That money goes into a pot for all districts to pay for basic, no-frills education costs. No extra-curricular activities, no special learning centers, no “community affairs”, maybe not even any computers. Cover staff, faculty (to a state mandated faculty:student ratio), administration, grounds, textbooks, and equipment necessary for a school to run. With this, add the caveat that at this level, it is often more expensive to run a school in a poor district than in a rich district. Poor districts have greater problems with theft, vandalism, attracting teachers, and wear-and-tear on equipment. They would, therefore, get a larger piece of the pie. Some subsidizing of poor districts by rich districts is unavoidable if you subscribe to the belief (as I do) that a student’s socio-economic circumstances should not affect their right to a basic education.

From there, each district may levy an additional property tax - whatever the voters approve - to pay for educational services above and beyond the stone cold basics. Want high school football? Get your voters to approve the taxes. Think it’d be really cool to build a district arboretum? Get your voters to approve the taxes for it. Want to pay your superintendent 300% more than other districts? Get your voters to approve the taxes for it. Yadda yadda yadda.

The benefits I see is that it is substantially fairer - everyone pays the same tax rates, every district has the necessary funding to work. It’s not “stealing” from the rich districts in that the taxation is the same for all, and the richer districts can persuade their voters to fund more than the basics. This, in and of itself, leads to district improvements because how good a district is has an enormous effect on property values. The more the voters are willing to pay, the more the district has to offer, the more people are willing to spend to buy property there. The poorer districts have their basics covered without going broke paying taxes, and they don’t have to worry if they’ll have enough in the coffers to pay the school nurse’s salary.

The downside includes ensuring that enough property taxes are collected state-wide to fund all schools and settling what should and should not be covered as “basic necessities”.

Would it work? Would it meet state and federal Constitutional muster? Does it meet with your political bend (other than say, total libertarians who believe public school is a Bad Thing)? Give me your feedback!

A few thoughts:

  1. Standardized testing, in its current incarnation, would have to be completely rethought, as not all students would be studying the same subjects. This would also effect college entrance exams, like the SAT.

  2. I’m troubled by the prospect of allowing tax-payers to decide curriculum. How would you deal with a school district that didn’t want to have science classes, or maybe one that refused to pay for an English class that taught more controversial books? I’m not arguing for the opposite extreme - parents having no input, say - but given how devisive school politics can be, how would you counteract such tendencies?

  3. If a school had enough money, they could effectively have a class on anything, yes? What if they wanted a class on Christianity? Or what if the district’s taxpayers decided that learning how to fix a car was more important than calculus, and wanted to turn their high school into more of a tech school? Would these outcomes be acceptable to you?

Good questions. I shall expand on my thoughts.

  1. Standardized testing is, at this point, something of a boondoggle. Often, the students are tested on how well they test, not what they know. Also, I have issues with the idea of using a norm-referenced standardized test to measure students’ achievement. A bench-referenced test would be much better. That’s neither here nor there, thought.

With a bare-bones approach to state level property taxation/school funding, schools would stay within what is considered the “core curriculum” (not my phrase, but something Texas districts have often adopted). This consists of: English/Language Arts, History, Science, and Math. One can argue from there that other classes, such as PE, Foreign Languages, and Fine Arts are necessary because the state college system requires them for admission. The SAT currently tests critical reading, math, and writing skills. So, a core curriculum would not be detrimental, and might even be positive, as the students would focus that much more. Other tests geared for college admission - the ACT and AP tests have different focii, and there is certainly room for tailoring the test and/or the funding. (Should, for instance, a bare bones approach fund AP courses, which are strongly recommended for any student who wants to take an AP test for college credit?)

  1. No, tax-payers don’t get to decide curriculum. At least not in that manner. Curriculum is dictated by accrediting organizations, then by the state, the district, the principal for each school, the department chair in each school, and then by individual teachers. The same give and take that takes place today would occur under the system I’ve suggested. No one’s going to do away with science classes because the school would lose its accredidation, attract large amounts of unwanted attention from the state department of education, the media, and colleges. Same thing with controversial subject matter. Funding doesn’t change that.

  2. Public schools are still bound by the separation of church and state, so regardless where their funding came from, prosletyzation is not an option. If the district could convince tax payers to fund a comparative religion/culture studies program, more power to them. Also, if the district feels its students are better served by a vocational emphasis, again, more power to them. The district should be responsive to community needs. (Though, in truth, there is room in most districts for both a vocational track and an academic one as well. Students are not best served by an “only this will do” mentality.)

How is your plan any different from the Robin Hood plan Texas had? You are still taking money from rich districts because the property taxes that people can afford in poor areas will not be enough to run the schools.

Also, I think you have two problems you have not really addressed. First, money isn’t the main reason why some schools are bad and others are good.This hits on a few points, including the following:

or from this site (While I disagree with some of his statements, the stats are correct AFAIK).

This is a fallacy that needs to be corrected. You could spend all the money you want in certain areas, and they will never have good schools. In most states, urban districts already spend more per pupil than rural districts. While they do have more expenses, that alone does not always account for the extra money they spend. I’m not saying more money never helps, but I think that usually isn’t the main problem.

Second, bad schools are bad for many reasons. Often times, things like unions, poor neighborhoods, etc. contribute to the educational environment. I just don’t think your plan would really do much to solve those problems.

Not to hijack, but here’s what I thought might work to improve situations in Urban areas. First, invoke eminent domain on all the abandoned properties and build new housing that will be offered to qualified teachers at a discount. Working with banks, help secure no/low interest loans for teachers who will agree to teach for a number of years in one of the city schools.

Next, begin to set up an open course ware thing like MIT has for the students which can be viewed using the internet. Mandate that all children do group work using open course lessons from school closing till 5:30/6PM. The lessons can be created and peer edited by teachers in the program.

Then, I would have the schools cut expenditures. First, they should stop buying expensive name brand computers. They should buy the parts and have classes where the students and the people in the community put them together. My high school spent tons of money on Imacs (and then Emacs) when they could have built a PC or bought a cheap Dell for half the price. The are a multitude of other ways to cut expenses, but I think you get the point.

Next, start statewide fund to fund new school buildings and building repairs in impoverished areas. The fund could be created from skimming from existing taxes or creating new ones.

I would also give principals the ability to choose their own teachers and teachers the ability to choose their principals. I think tenure is a good idea, but the system should make it easier to fire terrible teachers and administrators. Teachers should be given report cards that would be available to all districts so that bad teachers and principals don’t get bounced around from district to district (as many do now).

Lastly, I would allow teachers to get rid of disruptive and violent students easier. I haven’t quite figured out the best way to go about doing this, but there is no reason why troublemakers should slow all the other kids down.

I was thinking about this after reading the African history a requirement in Philadelphia thread thread.

I went to a pretty good high school. I think it was good because 1)I felt I got a quality education from it and 2)it was consistently ranked the highest in the district based on SAT scores. However, my view of it kind of changed once I got to college and met kids who had gone to other schools that had a ton of Advanced Placement offerings in things like chemistry, physics, European history, and statistics.

I thought I was doing good taking two years of AP English and one year of AP US history. The only other AP class offered at my school was AP calculus, and I wasn’t able to take it.

Yet my high school was the top one in its district. It was a good school.

It seems just a little unfair that public schools just a little bit north of where I grew up–in places like Marietta and East Cobb–had such fantastic course offerings while the school I attended in Atlanta had, in comparison, only a slightly better than adequate one. But even more unfair was the fact that kids in my neighborhood–those who weren’t bussed crosstown like I was–went to schools that had even fewer advanced classes than my school did. And yet we were all supposed to compete with one another in college admissions? We’re all supposed to wonder why kids from poor, urban schools fare worse in college courses than those from wealthier schools?

I have nothing against AP classes. But when I hear about schools piling on the AP classes to the curriculum, I wonder if it’s just another attempt to raise the bar to astronomical heights, so that the gap between the “riff raff” and the “elite” becomes that much bigger. (I also wonder about how effective some of these AP classes are. I know I did better in my college calculus classes than a lot of classmates who had taken AP calculus up the wazoo back in high school. Maybe they were just cocky and didn’t try as hard with the familiar material, I don’t know.)

People will say that poor, urban kids do not need AP classes because they will not appreciate them, since most will not go to college anyway. This is bullshit. How can you know what kids will appreciate if you deprive them of the opportunity of trying? Why would anyone want to go to college if they felt they weren’t prepared?

Wealthier schools do something that poorer schools don’t do so much or as well: they fund-raise. With these extra monies, they can build new wings and libraries, buy computers, fund extravagant field trips, buy new uniforms for the football team, etc. Wealthier schools make partnerships with businesses and have deep-pocketed sponsors. Poor schools simply can’t match this.

Perhaps the state should provide some type of “welfare” program to bolster school districts which can’t generate funds through property taxes above a pre-determined amount. The state could figure out how much a certain school district needs to provide quality* education for its constituents, and then cover any budget shortfalls, thus allowing the school district to give the best education it possibly can.

I also think some uniformativity in the school district needs to be ensured, particularly in districts where students are required to attend local, neighborhood schools. If High School A offers AP physics, High School B just five miles away should also offer AP physics. And if it doesn’t, then a student who wants to take AP physics (and has the appropriate grades/test scores) should either be allowed to transfer or be granted a teacher who can teach him or her (like what brickbacon mentioned, about the long-distance learning teacher).

I also think fundraising should be regulated somehow. I’m all for people caring about their immediate neighborhood, and I think fundraising should be encouraged. But it does nothing to help the larger community if Popular High School That Everyone Loves is able to raise a million dollars while the High School That Everyone Hates, the one on the bad side of town, is only able to raise thirty dollars. It hurts the less popular school because it’s put at more of a disadvantage, which drives teachers and good students away from it, therefore making it less likely to raise lots of money the next year. I think raised funds over a certain amount should go to a community-wide pot helping all schools in the area. There’s no good reason why a school on the rich side of town should get a huge endowment from its well-endowed constituents while poor schools are left sucking on crumbs from car washes and bake sales.

*I know “quality” is subjective. But if competitive schools are constantly raising the bar, then I think “quality” should hinge on the standards they are setting. For instance, if the top-performing schools have libraries with 4,000 books or more, this should be used as a standard of “quality”. If the top-performing high schools offer at least five AP classes, then this should be something all school districts should work to provide for its high schools.

It’s no more taking from the rich than taking tax money from New York to defend against an invasion of Miami. If all students have the right to a basic education, then we, as citizens, all have the obligation to pay taxes to support that basic level of education. The Robin Hood plan penalized rich districts by taking disproportionately more from their tax coffers. Under my plan, any extra expenditures by a school district would be approved by that district’s voters and be applied to that district.

That’s a completely different topic and one that I had not planned on addressing in this thread. Suffice it to say that while there is no complete correlation between expenditure per student and educational success, neither does that mean that you can educate a population of students by refusing to pay for a school building and the staff to run it. There is a minimum funding needed, or education simply won’t happen.

Absolutely. And I’m not saying that the funding plan I’ve proposed would solve those issues. My intention was to address where the money comes from and how it is divied up.

But what fun is a thread if there are no hijacks? There is a program very similar to what you’ve mentioned. It’s HUD’s Teacher Next Door. However, they offer HUD foreclosure homes, which a couple of years ago were rarer than hen’s teeth as the economy was doing so poorly. Your idea is interesting, though I can see conflicts with property rights.

By mandating, you mean requiring student attendance? That’s very difficult to pull off and the costs of implementation would be horrendous, especially when it comes to teacher salaries. How large a scope are you considering when you speak of open courseware? Something done by individual teachers? More and more are. Something offered by individual schools or districts? That’s starting to happen. The most effective, I think, would be offerings on a state or federal level, but then that gets into a completely different topic of individualized learning, which I am SO in favor of and would like to start another thread on that some day.

You’d be surprised at the steep discounts companies like Apple offer schools. The idea is if kids become acquainted with Macs at schools, that’s what their parents will buy for them at home. So Apple, and other computer manufacturers, consider selling to schools at very low cost to be something of an investment. This isn’t to say that Macs are the best from a price consideration, only that they’re probably far more competitive than you’d think.

The reason school districts go with brand names, even with the extra cost, is because they are usually more reliable, and the companies provide better support, there’s a larger range of products, and the computers can be pulled out of a box, plugged in, and started up with very little work from the IT department, a notoriously underfunded area in most school districts.

Pretty much a given. If you’re going to teach students, you have to have a safe, sturdy school to do it in. That would be covered by the first tier of property taxation that I’m proposing.

In both CA and TX, principals are responsible for hiring teachers for their schools. I’ve found in TX that teacher applicants have to be cleared on a district level first, but that’s pretty much a formality - does the teacher have a credential and a college degree, can they interview without throwing poo, that sort of thing. From there, the principal chooses who to interview and who to hire.

Tenure is a terrible idea, and I say this as a teacher. The original idea was that tenure protected good teachers from district or school politics. It doesn’t. Any halfway creative principal can make teaching a living hell for a teacher. They load the class up with hostile students, refuse to fund supply requests, nitpick everything the teacher does in the classroom, and refuses to back the teacher up when dealing with parents. The only teachers tenure protects are the ones who shouldn’t be in the classroom at all. Tenure means that people who lack what I consider to be the teacher ethos will work their butts off for the first two years and one day of their teaching career and then blow off the rest of their career. Administrators are powerless to fire bad teachers.

Administrators have no tenure, so they can be fired at will by the district. It doesn’t happen often, though, because principals who can cope with a school are rare enough. Good principals are precious gems.

The problem with report cards is, what do you grade the teachers on? If you grade the teacher on how well the students do in her class, you’ve handed her a powerful incentive for grade inflation. If you grade her on how well her students do on standardized tests, which some districts do internally, you punish teachers who are willing to take on difficult students - the learning disabled, the ones with behavioral issues, the ones who don’t test well. You also hang a teacher’s career on one week out of the school year where any odd thing can completely throw off the performance of the students, including the students themselves. (Before students had to pass specific portions of the CA mastery tests in order to graduate, some of them found it great fun to fill out test answer sheets with random answers or create fun patterns like trees or skulls.)

If you’re going to grade teachers, I’m going to recommend that you let the students do it. Crazy, I know, but I’ve found that with few exceptions, students are terrifyingly honest when given the chance to give feedback to teachers. Two out of the three years that I’ve taught, on the last day, I gave my students a survey asking them how I did on things like discipline, knowing my subjects, helping them learn, and making the lessons understandable. I got some harsh comments. Some of them were motivated out of spite, but most of them were offered in honest appraisal. It changed the way I worked in the classroom, for the better.

I absolutely agree with you. Here we run headlong into a conflict of rights. Each student has the right to an education. Removing a student from the classroom alienates that right. However, it preserves the rights of other students in the classroom, because the first student’s behavior was disruptive.

You know what I’d like to see? I’d like to see a school district file suit against a student and their parents for the cost of having that student waste the time of all the other students and the teacher in that classroom. Figure per capita of $80 per student per day, which makes it $13 per student in a classroom, with thirty students, that’s $390, plus the teacher’s salary, which is around $35 per class for a new teacher. Call it $425 for each incident of misbehavior. Put the paper trail or referrals, conferences, and suspensions together, and ask for that plus lawyers’ fees. Say $10K.

If parents had to shell out that kind of money for each class their child was disruptive in, you’d see some changes. (The flip side, of course, would be that you’d have to skin a teacher alive if they didn’t follow disciplinary procedures and were unfairly singling out a student. I can live with that.)

More than anything else - more than SAT or ACT scores, more than GPA, more than socio-economic level - the best indicator of how well a student will do in college is how demanding the curricula of the school they attended was. AP courses, when done properly and not as a sop to status-conscious parents, are the most demanding courses around (with the exception of International Baccheloreate courses, which I have no experience with, but I understand that they’re hella tough.)

I believe, very strongly, that AP courses should be available to every interested student. Not just the honor students. Not just the “gifted” students. All interested students. Curricula are curricula. It costs the same to design an AP curriculum as it does a standard one. Implementation may or may not cost more depending on the subject. Probably the toughest part is finding teachers who can teach a course that dense in information (me! me! Oooh, pick me!).

I also believe, though, that we have gone to far in our worship of the college bound student. There is nothing wrong with students pursuing vocational education, military, or trade school within high school instead of a college-centric academic approach. While many industries have started to require a bachelor’s degree, there are just as many more which are more successful when they hire students as apprentices and train them up in an industry. I believe all options should be available to students, and that they are best equipped to decide which to pursue.

You have an excellent point there. Well-off school districts are populated by people who understand how to make money and how to make money work for them. The parents of these district often have the leisure to handle fundraising projects and the money to make them worthwhile. I’ve read of more than a few poor, urban districts that came up with a unique business centered idea to raise funds and teach their students the basics of finance.

Absolutely, and in the rural district where I previously worked, that’s exactly what the school offered for courses that we had no teachers for. English AP students did the majority of their work through a regional distance-learning program. Three students wanted to take French, which we had no one to teach, so they got it through the same program.

And that’s exactly why I’ve proposed the funding scheme in the OP. I don’t think it works to take money away from the richer districts (the Robin Hood plan) because all that does is engender hostility towards to poorer districts. Instead, fund all school to a basic “quality” level, with the understanding that it’ll take more $$$ for the poorer districts to get there, and allow each district to fund above and beyond at their convenience.

Could consolidating some of the school districts solve some of this? (Not a complete solution, but a step in the right direction).

IIRC there are about 1300 school districts in Texas. It seems that, with a little gerrymandering we could smooth out some of the differences in school funding. (Yes, I realize we’d still have the problem of making sure that “Como-Highland Park” district distributed funds evenly between its schools).

I didn’t realize till recently that there was a sizable difference between teacher pay in the “wealthy” districts .vs. the “poor” ones. (conversations with my kids’ teachers). Consolidating districts would partially solve this as well.

I agree that something must be done, but I don’t think any large change will be accepted by the citizens. I also agree that the differences between school are sometimes amazing. We get a close up view of this when we follow our offspring to various Football games.

(and yes… Football is always capitalized 'round here) :stuck_out_tongue:

I think that part of the problem is with the federal quasi-mandates on education quality and funding.

It really needs to either be all state, or all federal, and I lean towards federal. That way, there’s no reason that my A means less than the A another person got in another state that ranks higher.

Just comparing average SAT scores is meaningless because of the different attitudes/approaches to the SAT test in different areas. In some states, most people take the test. It’s just what you do if you are in high school. In others, only the best and brightest take the test. To use New Jersey and Alabama from your quote

In 2004, 4583 students took the SAT’s in Alabama. 80,684 took the test in New Jersey. In 2005 Alabama has a population of 4.6 million, New Jersey a population of 8.4 million. So with about twice the population, New Jersey has twenty times the number of SAT test takers. Roughly ten times the participation. I am sure that if one were to dig one could find minor demographic differences, propensities to repeat the test, etc between the two states that might reduce this, but I do not doubt that a severe difference between the participation rates in the two states will remain. Take the top 10% of the Jersey test takers and the numbers will probably become comparable. Take 10 times as many Alabama students and who knows what their scores will do?

Test scores and participation from here:

Population stats from here: