Children at Risk: ‘There’s a Lot More Oratory Than Real Money’

By Nancy Mathis — April 26, 1989 8 min read
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Among the education interests competing for state resources, the children deemed most at risk of school failure are the least likely to be represented forcefully in the competition, according to advocates and school-finance experts.

A new survey of state initiatives for such children suggests that the “categorical” funding that has been approved in the last few years is still minuscule by comparison with the major blocks of state aid to education. And in the debates over those, the experts say, the lobbying of the traditional, organized sectors predominates.

“There’s a lot more rhetoric and oratory out there than there is real money for these youngsters,” says Richard Salmon, a professor of education at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, who recently reviewed all 50 states’ school-funding formulas. “This sounds cynical, but the young who are at risk don’t have a lobbying group.”

“School boards have lobbies, administrators have lobbies, teachers have lobbies,” concurs a lobbyist for one urban school district in Texas. “The only actors in education who don’t have a lobby are the kids.”

The area of special education is a key exception, suggests Mr. Salmon, because the interested parents cross all income lines and have the political savvy to generate support for their cause. The parents of at-risk children, on the other hand, are generally poor and unfamiliar with the political system, he says.

In addition, says Richard F. Elmore, a finance expert who is a professor of education at Michigan State University, building the political coalitions that would be necessary to redirect more state aid to such children would implicate a substantial amount of state resources.

“You have to put together packages of benefits that are widely enough distributed that it benefits the coalition that makes it possible,” Mr. Elmore argues. “There’s an implicit tax. The tax is in the form of benefits that have to be given to a broader population to get the political concurrence.”

But many states, he adds, do not now have the resources to provide the benefits for that trade-off.

Moreover, notes G. Alfred Hess Jr., executive director of the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance, the configuration of representatives in a legislature can significantly color the way any one issue is debated.

The Illinois legislature, Mr. Hess points out, is gaining more suburban representation. And as those representatives move into positions of power, he says, they attempt to assist the suburban school districts, which presumably have fewer at-risk students than either urban or rural districts.

To compensate for their lack of clout, advocates for at-risk children must paint their cause in a variety of shades, says the Texas lobbyist. In his work with the legislature, he says, a pre-kindergarten program can become an anti-crime measure.

“Everybody’s against crime,” he explains. “But if we’re not talking to legislators who are anti-crime advocates, then we’re talking to legislators on the cutting edge of economic development.” In that case, the pre-kindergarten program becomes a measure to aid economic development.

“If you’re not talking to economic-development people, you’re talking to intellectuals about the art of learning,” the lobbyist adds. “I have a whole bucket of paint. It creates constituencies for unrepresented kids.”

State attention has turned only recently to such pupils, suggests Deborah A. Verstegen, assistant professor of education at the University of Virginia.

Previously, states had viewed the federal government as playing the dominant role in providing special services for specific categories of disadvantaged youngsters through such programs as Chapter 1 compensatory education.

The interests of at-risk children, Ms. Verstegen says, “are probably least protected at the state and local levels.”

The beginnings of state activity in this area are pointed to in a 50-state study, by Ms. Verstegen and Kent McGuire, senior policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States, that offers the first cross-state findings on funding for at-risk pupils.

In the survey, states reported fiscal 1988 appropriations totaling $150 million for categorical grants earmarked to fund programs for at-risk students. About half the aid was earmarked for dropout-prevention programs, primarily in the form of pilot programs and competitive grants.

“It’s a minuscule amount,” comments Ms. Verstegen. “It’s a tiny amount of money being spread thinly over the population.”

According to estimates by the demographer Harold L. Hodgkinson, as many as one-third of the nation’s 40 million students risk failure in school.

The appropriation figures provided by the states may not be wholly accurate, Mr. McGuire cautions, because the survey allowed the state officials to determine what was an at-risk reform dollar. But even so, he says, there appears to be a consensus that not enough money is being spent on at-risk students.

“The dollars are small dollars in relation to all the money that’s in the system and even in relation to the other money that has gone out toward other reform goals,” he says.

According to the survey, 35 states have created at-risk initiatives, and in 28 of those the legis8lature specifically earmarked dollars for the programs; 27 states said they had created early-childhood programs and 22 of those earmarked dollars for the projects.

The survey found that 20 states still do not fund compensatory-education programs.

It also found that 44 percent of all categorical funds earmarked for public schools, or about $1.5 billion, was dedicated to such teacher-related initiatives as pay increases and career-ladder plans.

“That’s a big-ticket item,” notes Mr. McGuire. “There’s a constituency and a lobby for that. It’s a political negotiation: If you want more quality you have to do something about salaries.”

The states’ basic-aid formulas have yet to assimilate the concept of support for at-risk pupils, according to Mr. McGuire. In some states, for example, bilingual education and special education are given special additional weights that provide extra money to school districts through the state formula.

“It’s not clear to us there is a state-aid system out there that said that dropout provention is a program and we’re going to create a weight for it,” said Mr. McGuire.

Defining a program that benefits at-risk pupils specifically would be difficult, argues John L. Myers, senior education-policy director for the National Conference of State Legislatures. A seminar to improve teachers’ skills could be considered just as beneficial as a particular academic program, he points out.

Instead, lawmakers turn to categorical grants, money provided outside the formulas, because it can be earmarked for specific programs and readily seen by the programs’ backers.

Legislators attending a recent conference on school finance and the at-risk child hosted by the ncsl and the National Association of State Boards of Education said they preferred to use categorical grants because they ensured that the funding would be spent for a specific purpose.

Michael W. Kirst, professor of education at Stanford University, suggested during the conference that legislatures create one giant categorical grant for at-risk populations, containing funding not only for education but also other social-service and judicial programs that actively work with at-risk children. The idea, he said, would also promote greater cooperation between various agencies concerned with the young.

Mr. Salmon of Virginia Tech argues, however, that the bulk of state support for education is rightly funneled into state formulas, rather than categorical programs. He is among the school-finance experts who contend that finance equity itself could be “at risk” if categorical funding grows at the expense of the equalization dollars.

Those who see equalization in state aid as the fundamental issue in addressing the problems of the neediest youngsters are either closely watching or involved in the current round of school-finance litigation.

A number of pending lawsuits that are challenging the equity of state funding formulas are asking for more money in order to serve children at risk of failure.

When states responded to calls for equity during the 1970’s, they made substantial changes to their existing formulas. But often “most of the new money went to the middle-wealthy tier,” argues Margaret E. Goertz, senior research scientist for the Educational Testing Service.

“The low-wealth districts weren’t getting hurt, but they weren’t the major beneficiary of reform,” she says.

At the same time, she adds, the evidence accumulated of a high correlation between the poverty of a school district and the poverty of its residents--a relationship4that made it doubly difficult for low-wealth districts to meet the raised standards of the reform movement of the 1980’s.

In the New Jersey case of Abbott v. Burke, in which Ms. Goertz is a witness for the plaintiffs, their lawyers are contending that the four urban districts, located in cities that are among the poorest in the nation, cannot generate adequate local revenue. In addition, they argue, changes in the funding formula made by the state in 1976 were insufficient to serve the cities’ high concentrations of children with special needs.

The state board of education, ending years of administrative proceedings, concluded this month that the funding system was sufficient to provide for the urban students’ needs. The case is now on appeal to the courts.

In Wisconsin, the state Supreme Court recently dismissed a challenge to that state’s funding method that raised issues similar to those in New Jersey.

Milwaukee argued that the formula did not take into account the number of at-risk students in the city who needed special programs. The court concluded, however, that such special programs should be decided on legislatively rather than by the judicial system.

Other legal experts are looking to desegregation, rather than school-finance, litigation as a means of directing additional support to the nation’s neediest pupils. (See Education Week, Feb. 10, 1988.)

Federal courts handling desegregration cases, says Elliot Lichtman, a Washington lawyer and civil-rights activist, have ordered states and school districts to underwrite compensatory-education and other programs to eliminate vestiges of segregation.

“Even through they arise in a desegregation context,” Mr. Lichtman says, “the lawsuits have become an effective vehicle for compensatory programs to educationally disadvantaged children.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 1989 edition of Education Week as Children at Risk: ‘There’s a Lot More Oratory Than Real Money’


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