What do we mean by “a good school”?
Is it a school where all children are loved and respected and made to feel safe and valued? Where trained and caring educators know all students can succeed and work hard to help them reach their potential? Where children smile and laugh when they walk through the doors and enjoy being with each other and their teachers?
Or is it a school where most of the students are middle- or upper-class and at least a clear majority are white? Where families can provide their children with healthy food, a comfortable home and enriching after-school activities. Where average test scores are high, and GreatSchools ratings are near the top.
Recent reports on state education funding suggest Indiana is slipping when it comes to providing fair and adequate support for public schools.
Exhibit A, and the most discouraging example, is an annual report by researchers at Rutgers University and the Education Law Center. The report, “Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card,” evaluates states on four measures of how they fund schools.
Indiana gets a C in the report for “funding distribution,” a measure of whether states provide additional funding for high-poverty school districts. That’s unfortunate, because Indiana used to consistently get A’s in the category. It used to do a better job of sending more money to the neediest districts.
School funding referendums were approved Tuesday in six of the eight Indiana school districts that asked voters to increase their own property taxes to help pay teacher salaries and other expenses. That sounds like strong support for public education.
But several successful referendums were in affluent communities where voters can afford to pay a few more dollars for the high-achieving schools that are key contributors to their property values. Referendums failed in two high-poverty districts – East Chicago and Cannelton – where students may have the greatest need for extra money.
The bigger issue is that most of Indiana’s nearly 300 school districts have never voted to raise local taxes to increase local school funding, and most probably never will.
Only about 40 Indiana school districts have approved school tax levy referendums since the referendum system began eight years ago. Most have never tried, because officials know the effort would probably fail. It’s not that people don’t support their local schools; it’s that the tax base is often so weak that it would take a big rate increase to make a difference – which could hurt many property owners.
Education policy debates have long pitted supporters of equity against advocates for excellence. A report from a congressionally chartered commission suggests we can’t have one without the other.
“For Each and Every Child,” issued last week by the federal Equity and Excellence Commission, echoes the sense of urgency of the “A Nation at Risk” manifesto that came out 30 years ago. But its primary focus is on the dramatic inequality of opportunity that characterizes America’s schools.
“With the highest poverty rate in the developed world, amplified by the inadequate education received by many children in low-income schools, the United States is threatening its own future,” it says.
The 52-page report centers its recommendations on five themes: developing fairer approaches to school funding; training and retaining good teachers; expanding pre-school; mitigating the effects of poverty; and tying governance and accountability systems to the goals of equity and excellence.
The commission that produced the report was packed with influential figures: scholars, union and civil rights leaders and others. And the members seem determined not to let the report gather dust. They’re out doing media interviews and writing op-eds about their findings and recommendations.
Yet implementing their ideas will likely be a struggle. Continue reading