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Why America's Schools Have A Money Problem

By Cory Turner | NPR
Friday, June 24, 2016

Let's begin with a choice.

Say there's a check in the mail. It's meant to help you run your household. You can use it to keep the lights on, the water running and food on the table. Would you rather that check be for $9,794 or $28,639?

It's not a trick question. It's the story of America's schools in two numbers.

That $9,794 is how much money the Chicago Ridge School District in Illinois spent per child in 2013 (the number has been adjusted by Education Week to account for regional cost differences). It's well below that year's national average of $11,841.

Ridge's two elementary campuses and one middle school sit along Chicago's southern edge. Roughly two-thirds of its students come from low-income families, and a third are learning English as a second language.

Here, one nurse commutes between three schools, and the two elementary schools share an art teacher and a music teacher. They spend the first half of the year at different schools, then, come January, box up their supplies and swap classrooms.

"We don't have a lot of the extra things that other districts may have, simply because we can't afford them," says Ridge Superintendent Kevin Russell.

One of those other districts sits less than an hour north, in Chicago's affluent suburbs, nestled into a warren of corporate offices: Rondout School, the only campus in Rondout District 72.

It has 22 teachers and 145 students, and spent $28,639 on each one of them.

What does that look like?

Class sizes in Rondout are small, and every student has an individualized learning plan. Nearly all teachers have a decade of experience and earn, on average, more than $90,000. Kids have at least one daily break for "mindful movement," and lunch is cooked on-site, including a daily vegetarian option.

The Simple Answer

Why does Rondout have so much and Ridge so little?

Over the past six months, NPR Ed and 20 of our member station partners set out to explore this basic question.

The simple answer is that many of Rondout's neighbors are successful businesses. They pay local taxes, and those taxes help pay for local schools. Ridge simply has less to work with — fewer businesses, lower property values.

More broadly: "You've got highly segregated rich and poor towns," says Bruce Baker of Rutgers University, who studies how states pay for their public schools. "[They] raise vastly different amounts of local revenue based on their local bases, and [Illinois] really doesn't put much effort into counterbalancing that."

To be fair, Illinois gives more money to Ridge than it does to Rondout. It's just not nearly enough to level the playing field.

For more on how Illinois pays for public schools, click here.

This tale of two schools isn't specific to Illinois. It plays out across the U.S., with kids the same age, in the same grade attending schools that try to educate them with wildly different resources. On average, New York, Alaska, and Wyoming each spent more than $17,000 per student in 2013, while California, Oklahoma and Nevada spent roughly half that.

Below, you can see that remarkable variation for yourself — and find out what schools are spending where you live. NPR teamed up with Education Week to build this map of per-student spending nationwide (adjusted for regional cost differences).

Over the next three weeks, the NPR Ed Team will unveil a vast collection of "School Money" stories told in collaboration with station reporters across the country. Our goal: To give voice to this school-funding imbalance and to explain what happens when many of America's poorest students also attend its poorest schools.

Here's one cause for alarm: The achievement gap between this nation's wealthiest and poorest students is growing dramatically, not shrinking.

We'll begin each week with a question to guide our coverage. For this, our first week:

"How do we pay for our schools?"

And the answer starts with Satan.

Yes, that Satan.

The Old Deluder

In 1647, Massachusetts Bay colonists were worried. New neighbors were arriving, and many could not read. Puritans considered literacy key to the survival of their faith: Teach every child to read so that every child can read the Bible.

And so the colony created a remarkable new law. It began, "It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures ... " and ended with a mandate: that towns of more than 50 families hire a teacher. The law also required that the teacher's wages be paid for "either by the parents or masters of such children, or by the inhabitants in general."

"This law reflected the idea that the local community was responsible for the well-being of all children, not just out of a sense of altruism but because the whole community depended on it," says Ben Justice, a professor of education history at Rutgers.

Fast forward 369 years, give or take a few months.

Today, our school funding system is infinitely more complex, but still based on that one, powerful idea — that education is a public good, and paying for it could be considered a public obligation.

In the U.S., school funding comes from a combination of three sources. The balance varies from state to state but, on average, looks like this: 45 percent local money, 45 percent from the state and 10 percent federal.

Which brings us back to where we began this story: Why is it that one Chicago-area district has $9,794 to spend on each of its students, while another, nearby district has three times that?

Two words: property tax.

These days, when we ask "the inhabitants in general" to help pay for their schools, we usually start with local property taxes. That's nothing new. The property tax is an old idea, older than America itself.

The problem with a school-funding system that relies so heavily on local property taxes is straightforward: Property values vary a lot from neighborhood to neighborhood, district to district. And with them, tax revenues.

To help poorer schools compensate for that local imbalance, some states have stepped in. In 2013, North Carolina provided two-thirds of its schools' funding.

"If we didn't have that, we'd be in pretty dire straits right now," says Rodney Shotwell, superintendent of Rockingham County Schools, a low-income, rural district along the state's northern border with Virginia.

This year, Rockingham got more than $5 million in extra state funding for its disadvantaged students. Shotwell says that money helped pay for teachers, instructional supplies, even custodians.

For more on North Carolina's school funding, click here.

But North Carolina is the exception, not the rule.

Most of the nation's superintendents and principals will tell you that whether they can afford a year-round art teacher or new textbooks depends at least in part on the property wealth around them. Just ask Tramene Maye.

Sumter County, Ala.

Maye is the principal of Livingston Junior High School in rural western Alabama. Most of his students come from low-income families. Sumter County is farm country, and what isn't farmland is timberland. In Alabama, both are lightly taxed. Maye gives us a guided tour of the results:

"In the girls restroom, they may have four or five stalls, but only one works," he says.

One room, no longer a classroom, leaks when it rains. Garbage cans catch some of the water, but the buckled floor and smell of mold suggest they miss plenty. Around the school, there are broken windows, peeling paint and cracked floors.

Again, some states send extra dollars to districts like Sumter that serve lots of low-income students, to help level the playing field, but Alabama isn't one of them.

Jewel Townsend is a star student at Sumter Central High, which is in better shape than the junior high. Still, she says it's hard when she travels and sees the buildings and sports facilities that other schools have.

"I see that Sumter County doesn't have that," Jewel says, her voice catching. "It's like, 'Wow, really? Why can't we have that?' "

In 2011, plaintiffs from Sumter tried to prove that the state's school funding system wasn't just unfair but was also racially discriminatory. In addition to being mainly low-income, all of Sumter's students are African-American.

A federal judge excoriated Alabama's funding system in an 800-page opinion. Still, he found the plaintiffs were not entitled to relief from the court.

For more on Sumter County, click here.

And Sumter isn't the only school district to look for help from the courts.

Right now, 13 states are defending themselves in school-funding lawsuits: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Washington.

The Lawsuit Phenomenon

Since the early 1970s, nearly every state has seen at least one lawsuit over how it pays for schools and whether the result is fair or adequate.

Of the many funding lawsuits that have played out in the nation's courts, one stands out: San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez.

The suit, which made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, struck at the heart of the nation's school-funding system.

It was filed by Demetrio Rodriguez and other parents in Edgewood, a largely poor, Latino school district in San Antonio. Edgewood is across town from a largely white district that, back then, had some of the best-funded schools in Texas.

Rodriguez's sons attended an elementary school where the third floor had been condemned. It lacked books, and many teachers weren't certified.

The plaintiffs argued that any school-funding system that depends on local property tax revenue is fundamentally unfair to poorer districts.

Specifically, the suit claimed, the way we pay for our schools violates the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause, which says that no state shall "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

This was 1973, nearly 20 years after the Supreme Court used the equal protection clause to justify an end to racial segregation in America's schools.

In his decision in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote:

"It is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms."

The Rodriguez plaintiffs considered their lawsuit a natural extension of Brown: that disparities in school funding prevent America's students from getting that opportunity of an education on "equal terms."

The nation's schools had become more racially integrated, certainly, but were still profoundly segregated: Poor kids, black and white alike, found themselves clustered in largely poor schools.

In a split 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled against Rodriguez, saying there is no right to equal funding in education under the U.S. Constitution. Not that the system is fair or balanced — just that the federal government has no obligation to make it so.

In his forceful dissent, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote, "I cannot accept such an emasculation of the Equal Protection Clause in the context of this case."

It was a turning point in the school funding debate.

"As a result of Rodriguez, the federal courts essentially washed their hands of the problem. And they turned it over to the states," says Michael Rebell, executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University.

In the four decades since, dozens of lawsuits have been filed in state courts, arguing that their funding systems are either unfair, inadequate or both.

Instead of appealing to protections in the U.S. Constitution, plaintiffs have turned to state constitutions, most of which do include language that guarantees children the right to an education. (See what your state has to say here.)

In fact, a new case is now before the Texas Supreme Court, filed by 600 of the state's school districts. Their argument: More than 40 years after the Rodriguez ruling, the state's funding system is still out of balance.

Demetrio Rodriguez's daughter, Patty, was a toddler when her father's case was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. She's now a veteran teacher in Edgewood.

"It's nothing new," she says of this latest lawsuit. "After a while you ask yourself, 'Is it ever really going to change?' "

For more of Patty Rodriguez's story, click here.

Desperate Measures

Across the country, schools in low-wealth districts face tough choices. Not only do they struggle to raise money locally, but many saw drastic cuts in state funding during and after the Great Recession.

According to this study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, at least 31 states spent less money per student in 2014 than they did in 2008. During that time, the study found, local funding also dropped in 18 states.

To make ends meet, schools are cutting back everywhere they can. And some are hitting bone.

The rural Coolidge Unified School District, southeast of Phoenix, had already cut its arts and music classes as well as its librarians. But that wasn't enough. The district still struggled to attract and keep good teachers — because it couldn't pay them well.

So, Coolidge shaved a day off its school week. On Fridays, the district's teachers and students stay home. Because the schools are locked tight.

"To achieve savings," says Superintendent Charie Wallace, "we couldn't have people flipping on lights or turning on a computer."

The promise of a regular three-day weekend and a modest salary hike cut the district's teacher turnover rate in half this year.

"Anything I can do to pay teachers," Wallace says, "because they are the key to student achievement. They are the ones that deliver the goods."

That may explain why nearly 1 in 5 Arizona districts now uses the four-day school week.

For more on Arizona's four-day school week — and what it's meant for parents — click here.

The Cost Of Poverty

And then there's Tiffany Anderson, the superintendent of Jennings School District just outside St. Louis, not far from Ferguson, Mo. She says many of her students come from poverty, and she's got to stretch the money she gets to help them.

"Every principal has to meet with me every month, and they have to justify how they spent every dollar," Anderson says.

She walks the walk, too. The crosswalk.

Every morning, she plays the role of crossing guard, walking kids across the street in front of one of the district's nine schools.

"The members of my staff, including myself, we have maybe 10 different roles that we juggle," Anderson says. "It's a way to really maximize that budget so we can divert dollars into the classroom."

Anderson isn't just about cutting costs, either; she's creative about finding new money. She put donated washers and dryers in some of her schools. Parents can use them in exchange for volunteering an hour in the classroom.

She has even forged some powerful outside partnerships to help pay for a district homeless shelter, health clinic and food pantry.

It's a double whammy for educators like Anderson who serve kids living in poverty: They often have less local money to work with but higher costs than other, more affluent districts. Kids can't check their poverty at the classroom door.

For more on Tiffany Anderson and school finance in Missouri, click here.

The Math

We began with the question: "How do we pay for our schools?"

We've traveled now from that old deluder, Satan, to segregation. From a leaky ceiling in rural Alabama to a four-day school week in Arizona. From $9,794 to $28,639.

What does it all add up to?

To be sure, many parents who live in districts that can and do spend lavishly to educate their children argue that the system works just fine. And they're not wrong. It's working there. But it's not working everywhere.

Next week, we'll wade into the debate over the difference money can make in a classroom. And yes, it's a debate.

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