Special Report

Access to Resources

By Lynn Olson & Craig D. Jerald — January 08, 1998 3 min read

Sure, money isn’t the answer to all the troubles plaguing urban schools. But to ignore the question of resources is naïve.

Given the compelling need of so many city students and the push to hold schools more accountable for achievement, some argue that urban schools deserve a greater share of public resources. That argument has yet to persuade many policymakers.

“Somebody asked me what I thought was the biggest failure of the education reform movement nationally, and I told them it was the inability of the education reform movement to drive finance equity,” says Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools.

Experts say as much as $50 billion is needed to repair and upgrade aging and deteriorating school buildings in the nation's urban districts.

Some urban districts spend more per student than their statewide average. In other states, they spend less. Nationally, urban districts spent about $4,500 per student in 1994, compared with $5,066 in nonurban districts. Those figures are adjusted for regional differences in the cost of education and the added expense of educating more students with special needs.

Some urban systems spend significantly less than the affluent suburban communities that surround them. New York City, for example, ranked dead last in per-pupil spending in 1994 of the 49 districts in its metropolitan area, yet it had the second-highest percentage of minority students and the highest percentage of children living in poverty.

In Cook County, Ill., which includes Chicago, school districts where a majority of students are members of minority groups spent far less per pupil in 1994 than those that have a majority white student population--$4,851 per student vs. $6,085.

Mr. Casserly estimates that urban districts need about 50 billion just to patch up and repair their aging and in many cases crumbling school buildings, many of which date back to the early decades of the century. Yet the White House and Congress agreed last year to drop a Clinton administration proposal that would have used 5 billion in federal interest subsidies to help generate an estimated $20 billion in new money for school construction, much of which would have benefited urban districts.

“It is unconscionable that in too many places in America, teachers and paraprofessionals and students are working under terrible conditions,” Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a speech last summer. Too many educators, she said, work “in hallways and converted bathrooms, overcrowded schools, often with leaky roofs: and peeling plaster, with a lack of books and supplies, without access not only to technology but to a rich and challenging curriculum.”

But urban schools all too often hurt their own case. Plenty of evidence shows that some urban districts fail to spend their money wisely--or even legally. Massachusetts officials intervened in the Lawrence public schools last year, after state auditors found that district officials had misspent almost $9 million.

In 1994, Detroit voters approved an unprecedented $1.5 billion for school construction and renovation. But little of the money has been spent for actual school repairs. “It’s a joke,” Marie Thornton, a parent activist told Education Week. “We don’t have an buildings, we don’t have workmen, you don’t see a brick laid.”

The time is long past when legislators are willing to pour money into urban school without demanding hard facts about how the money is spent. Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland’s state superintendent, summed up that view recently before a state task force studying school finance. “I don’t think there’s any appetite in the state or the nation,” she said, “to contribute dollars with no measurable outcomes.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 1998 edition of Education Week as Access to Resources