Why School Funding Matters

In reference to the recent post, “Numbers to Ponder“, a loyal reader, okay my older brother, wrote:

This is an absolutely mind-boggling situation to me. Given my complete lack of experience / knowledge regarding school levies I must ask “What suggestions can one with your experience / knowledge make in a scenario such as this one?” It appears to me that asking for a school levy in the Bethel School District would be a totally futile pursuit.

At the end of our the district tour, I asked the superintendent what polling was showing and whether he thought voters would approve the bond. I was surprised by his honest assessment that it was going to be very difficult. Seemingly resigned to a negative outcome, he referenced a neighboring district that passed their bond on the tenth try. I followed up by asking if there was a Plan B. There is not, which may mean the gap in educational opportunity will continue to widen in Western Washington State.

In the US, the fact that we fund public schools largely through property taxes means communities with larger, more expensive homes generate more funds for schools than those with smaller, less expensive ones. Property tax based funding makes a mockery of one of the things we most like to believe about ourselves, that there’s equal opportunity. How can there be equal opportunity if there’s not equal educational opportunity?

More specifically, how can we expect Bethel students to achieve at the same level as others in Washington State when they lose class time walking from distant portables to the main buildings to use bathrooms or change classes, and when they lose class time to floods and unsafe plumbing and electrical problems, and when they don’t have as many books to choose among or computers to use, and when their teachers come and go? Not to mention rodents and unsafe athletic facilities.

During the tour I was reminded of a poignant documentary from about 20 years ago about your home state, O-H-I-O. That Public Broadcasting System film detailed the extreme differences between the most wealthy and poor districts/schools in the state. I read some follow up articles about the backlash it caused and several new schools were built in response.

In fact, activist groups in several states have succeeded in legally challenging the school funding status quo. Many of those states now pool the bulk of their property tax revenues and then distribute them in a more uniform manner. If we truly value equal opportunity, that’s a step in the right direction. But it’s an incomplete step because privileged families will always supplement what their children’s schools have available so that their children maintain a relative advantage.

Among other ways, our daughters schools, like a lot of 0thers, did this by holding fund-raising auctions for parents. They provided dinner, had local businesses—often owned by the students’ families—volunteer gifts, and then auctioned them off. I recall a plain looking chocolate cake going for $500. And an auctioneer that asked, “Who’d like to give $100 to the library so that we can order more books?!” A majority of people’s hands shot up.

Or maybe I didn’t hear him correctly, maybe he said, “Who wants their children to remain a leg up in the race of life?”

A Land of (Still Imperfect) Opportunity

Watching an ESPN documentary about Mary Decker Slaney, and The Wire, and the Netflix original series “Orange is the New Black“, has me thinking about the American Presidency, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and how illusive equal opportunity still is.

Without a doubt, U.S. citizens have greater opportunity to improve their lives than the average world citizen. And U.S. citizens have more opportunity today than fifty years ago when King and others marched on Washington. Those two points are inarguable, but too many U.S. citizens extrapolate from them to argue that everyone in the United States—young, old, female, disabled, dark, poor, heterosexual, non-English speaking—has equal opportunity to succeed. Thinking that we’ve achieved equal opportunity for all may be the most pernicious myth we tell about ourselves.

I was shocked by a scene from the middle of the Slaney documentary. In one of her best performances ever, she won the 3k at the 1985 World Championship in Helsinki, Finland. Amazingly, there wasn’t a single East African in the race. Today, nine or ten of the fastest ten middle distance women runners in the world are Ethiopian or Kenyan. They have only had the opportunity to demonstrate their excellence on the international scene for a few decades. Now, the international track is a level playing field.

Watching the Wire and Orange is the New Black back-to-back is eye-opening. They remind the viewer just how white and middle class most television is. And the incredible amount of acting talent that resides in every ethnic group. The Wire, about Baltimore’s inner city, had a mostly African-American cast. Orange, set in a women’s prison, has a culturally diverse, predominantly female cast. The writing, acting, and producing on both shows is remarkable.

It makes one wonder how many other just as talented culturally diverse writers, actors, and producers are trying desperately to get their feet in Hollywood’s mostly monocultural door. For every actor we see on a small or large screen there are at least another hundred who are equally talented. The only difference is they lack connections and opportunity. Give black, hispanic, asian, and female actors equal opportunity and they will do memorable, award winning work.

And if that’s true in athletics and the arts, why wouldn’t it also be true in education, business, medicine, politics and every aspect of modern life? It’s laughable that we maintain the myth of equal opportunity in the U.S. when we’ve had 44 in a row male presidents.

We should celebrate the slow but steady extension of opportunity in the United States, but not kid ourselves with claims of equal opportunity writ large. Everyday, some in our communities are told by others that they’re too young, too old, too female, too disabled, too dark, too poor, too queer, too foreign. Refusing to see that doesn’t change reality.

Homework Wars

French president Francois Hollande wants to ban homework. Borrowing from Slate:

Hollande suggested the take-home-study prohibition as part of his plan for education reform. The recently elected socialist party leader said “an education program is, by definition, a societal program. Work should be done at school, rather than at home.” He added that the homework ban was a matter of equality, since wealthier children have parental support at home and poor children do not.

When writing previously about teacher-parent relations, I failed to pinpoint homework as a major source of frustration and conflict. Even the GalPal and I, former public school teachers and teacher advocates, get frustrated with the constantly shifting nature of our daughter’s homework. Last year in 11th grade she spent two to four hours on homework nearly every night. This year, in 12th grade, with just a slightly less rigorous courseload, she typically has no homework.

Even though two-thirds of France opposes Hollande’s ban, he’s right that homework complicates equal educational opportunity. In schools that lack academic rigor and parental involvement, teachers start out assigning homework, overtime though, when a majority of students don’t do it, they quit assigning it. Which partly explains the achievement gap.

I’ve also observed in schools in poor communities where teachers sometimes only have one set of textbooks, meaning they can’t leave the classroom. In stark contrast, in the interest of back health and extended learning, a few of my daughters’ teachers checked out two texts per student so they could keep one at home and one in their school locker. So much for equal educational opportunity. And for equal opportunity more generally, the supposed lynchpin of American life.

You’re thinking let’s figure out how to raise the homework floor not lower its ceiling, and of course that makes more sense, but how do we raise the floor if a lot of children don’t have even one adult who knows and cares about whether their homework is completed?

To defuse the growing teacher-parent-homework divide, schools should stop leaving homework decision-making up to every individual teacher to do as they please. That’s what leads to extreme unevenness. Elementary school principals should help grade-level teams decide together on a philosophy of homework. Secondary principals should help academic departments do the same. Then grade-level teams and academic departments should work towards a consensus on a school-wide “Philosophy and Practice of Homework Guide” for parents and students.

And to reduce the number of tearful late nights, it would help if every teacher took time before the end of class to do the first ten percent of so of the assigned homework with students to make sure everyone understands it.

What’s the right amount of homework? The guideline I’ve always liked is ten minutes per night per grade, so an hour a night in sixth grade, and two hours in twelfth. However, parents will adjust to more or less if its purposes are clearly and convincingly communicated and they know what to expect in advance.

The sort of “Philosophy and Practice of Homework Guides” I’m recommending would also help parents make more informed decisions about where to enroll their children. Different guides will resonant with different parents’ educational philosophies.

I suppose there are two other ways to defuse the homework divide. One is to return to the 1970’s of my youth and build a “study hall” into students’ school schedules. Another is to put a proposed ban to a vote of the nation’s students.

Problem Solving

In response to last week’s social science/wealth inequality posts, a comment averse reader sent me the exact kind of response I had hoped to generate when I started blogging. Let’s call her Private.

Private wrote:

Duh? Were you surprised by ANY of those stats? I was not. For me, the far, far, far bigger question concerns my personal responsibility, your responsibility and our corporate responsibility to address those numbers.

She continued:

My Tuesday Lunch Club is superb at identifying social trends and issues therein. It’s solution we struggle with. My Friday dinner friends frequently discuss the week’s news. Again, no useful, doable answers. Based on your variety of sources quoted, you, too, spend a fair amount of time gleaning news stories. It’s my hope that thinking people, such as yourself, spend equal time pondering and yes, even working on and discussing with others, solutions to the problems you identify so clearly. Let’s see some posts about that!!!

Three exclamation points demand a response.

I’m an educator; consequently, I believe consciousness raising is important in and of itself. Ideas matter because they shape our behaviors. But Private would most likely reply what good is awareness of social problems absent concrete actions to solve them? Put differently, quit intellectualizing, roll up your sleeves, and do something to create more equal opportunity.

I don’t have any special insights on problem solving probably because I’m too content with the ambiguity engendered by good questions.

Nonetheless, here is an overarching belief: social problem solving takes many forms all of which should be encouraged equally. Among the forms, 1) practicing selfless, socially conscious, caring forms of parenting; 2) modeling socially redeeming principles such as humility, kindness, and empathy in one’s day-to-day interactions; 3) practicing socially redeeming principles in one’s purchases and lifestyle choices; 4) choosing work that explicitly improves others’ qualities of life; and 5) giving money and time to causes and groups that have proven track records of helping people locally, nationally, and/or internationally.

What would you add?

The GalPal is way more inspiring on this topic than I’ll ever be. While I’m reading, thinking, questioning, debating, and writing, she’s often organizing a team of friends to make dinner for a hundred homeless men and women at the Salvation Army.

Rolling the Dice

As noted Monday, in the U.S. today, the top 20% most wealthy citizens own 84% of the wealth and the top 1% own 50%.

Is that sustainable?

I wouldn’t think so, but the “have-nots” haven’t taken to the streets yet and serious crime is down in most major metropolitan areas. And curiously, quite a few of the eighty percenters are opposed to increasing the taxes of the top twenty percenters. In fact, I’m guessing a lot of the TEA Party is made up of bottom eighty percenters.

Maybe they see themselves joining the top twenty percenters sometime soon. Recent research would suggest they’re delusional because social mobility is extremely low in the U.S. right now, even lower than in most other developed countries in Western Europe. Our perception of our country as a bastion of social mobility is not even close to reality.

Maybe the top twenty percenters have cast some sort of Nancy Grace, sports, reality-television based spell on the bottom eighty percenters that keep them from asking questions about equality of opportunity let alone agitating for a saner redistribution of wealth. Just keep watching Survivor Nicaragua, Monday Night football, and wondering whether Lindsey Lohan is in or out of jail and don’t worry about our proportion of wealth.

How else can you explain a situation where four people say to sixteen, we’ll take 8.4 of every 10 units of housing, health care, vacations, dining out, cars, insurance, savings, etc. and the sixteen of you figure out how to divide up the remaining 1.6 units.

How long can this go on? What eventual ripple effects can we anticipate from this growing gap between the “haves” and “have-nots”?

Resilience

I’ve been thinking about how different my daughters’ lives are and the seventeen year old central character’s in Winter’s Bone.

Winter’s Bone has the feel of a documentary/commercial hybrid. It’s the story of a seventeen year old woman taking complete care of her mentally out of it mother, 12 year old brother, and six year old sister in a desperately poor, rural, Appalachia-like environ.

Her dad is elsewhere cooking meth and he’s put the house up as collateral on a bond and then missed his court date. As a result, the house will be repossessed if he’s not located within a week. The bulk of the film is the daughter trying to locate the father. In the hands of these particular filmmakers, it’s a brutal, powerful, mesmerizing story.

Despite the increasing prominence of national chain stores in this country, this film was a reminder that substantive regional and subcultural differences still exist.

My daughters have a legion of educated, financially secure parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and older cousins. They’re entering adulthood with a nine-person offensive line to run behind. The central character in Winter’s Bone had an extended family wracked by poverty, substance abuse, and violence. When the ball was hiked to her, she had no one to block for her.

Despite all the countervailing evidence, many Americans believe every young adult has an equal opportunity to flourish. Did the drug users in Winter’s Bone choose separately to take drugs or did they succumb to pervasive environmental influences? Were they immoral, undisciplined psychological weaklings or rather was their demise practically inevitable and entirely predictable from a socio-psychological point of view?

Even though the central character turns out okay because of her uncommon resilience, we need social, economic, political, and education reforms to expand the life opportunities of poor young people. The challenge is implementing those reforms without forcefully capping other young people’s life opportunities. Exceedingly difficult to pull off, especially in a recessionary era.

Sometimes I wonder if my daughters might be too privileged to develop the type of resilience they’ll have to draw upon to be successful adults. They don’t project a sense of entitlement, and they are socially aware, but they could be even more so.

Eighteen’s fancy pants college should show the class of 2014 Winter’s Bone so that they more fully appreciate the amazing opportunities their college experience will provide them.

[first Pad post, harder to edit sans mouse, so DKB cut me some slack]