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Rich Schools/Poor Schools: The Gap Grows

By Anthony Cody — September 23, 2009 4 min read
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Do public schools in poor neighborhoods get shortchanged while schools in wealthy communities are protected from the ravages of the cuts? It sure looks that way, according to last week’s report from San Diego public radio and TV station KPBS.

Reporter Joanne Faryon went to two schools in San Diego. At the toney La Jolla Elementary, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, she found a parent organization that raises at least $300,000 every year. According to the Friends of La Jolla Elementary site,

The funds raised each year pay for educational enrichment such as art program, choral music program, technology in the classrooms, additional teacher for upper grades (lower class size), and instructional resources and materials. Additionally, funds are raised for school campus improvements.

This year they actually raised $450,000 so additional money could be spent installing artificial turf and beautifying the school. As you might suspect, fewer than 10% of the students at the school are economically disadvantaged, and 99% of the fifth graders scored proficient or advanced on the state reading and math tests.

Eighteen miles away, she found Horton Elementary, where more than 90% of the students come from disadvantaged households, and most are English learners. While the school gets a bit of additional funding for these reasons, it does not have any foundation to raise special funds. This school has no artificial turf, and there are holes in the playground where trees that were planted years ago have died. Here, 23% of the fifth graders scored proficient or advanced in reading, and only 20% were proficient or advanced in math.

There are small, affluent areas where these practices are district-wide. In Rancho Santa Fe, the elementary school is only about 2% economically disadvantaged, and parents raise enough money to lower class sizes to seventeen. About 90% of the students are proficient or advanced in reading and math. The Del Mar Union district sends a letter home every year to each family asking for a donation of $800 for every student they have enrolled. In this district, fewer than five percent are disadvantaged, and more than 90% proficient and advanced.

This disparity occurs in Oakland as well, where schools in wealthy neighborhoods like Chabot Elementary raise more than $100,000 each year through silent auctions and many other fundraisers, the money spent on classes in music, Spanish, technology, and a new library and media center.

You can’t really blame parents for wanting to support their children’s education, and it is really the best aspect of a community that says we pull together to give our children what they need. At one time we had a notion that the whole state was our community, and everyone was taxed at a level necessary to support the schools at a decent level. But back in 1978, Proposition 13 in California rolled back property taxes for all property owners. The proposition was sold with sympathetic images of elderly people getting taxed beyond their means as their home values rose. But the benefits have largely accrued to large corporate property owners, and the tax base for our schools has shifted onto homeowners even more. San Francisco’s assessor, Phil Ting, reports that in his county,

Thirty years ago, commercial property owners contributed 59 percent of property tax revenues and residential property owners contributed 41 percent. Today, we see a virtual flip: commercial property owners contributed just 43 percent of property taxes in 2008, while residential property owners contributed 57 percent.

Now that property values have fallen, state revenues and support for schools has plummeted, and schools are in real trouble. An effort is underway to close this corporate loophole in California.

What we are seeing is that people with money are stepping forward to protect the schools in their immediate community from the full impact of these cuts. Meanwhile, schools in poor neighborhoods are forced to lay off teachers, increase class sizes, cut off needed supplies and eliminate after-school programs.

The students in poor neighborhoods are also being hit with cuts to state and local programs that support those in poverty - local health programs, support for homeless shelters, and many other programs. More than third of the funding for Healthy Families -- $144 million, was cut. This program covers 942,000 children in California, and will result in hundreds of thousands of children losing health care.

There are racial implications as well. The impoverished schools I cited above have predominately Latino or African American students, many of them English learners, while the wealthy schools are predominately white. And as Barbara Ehrenreich and Derrick Muhammed recently reported in the New York Times, this recession is having a hugely disproportionate impact on African American families.

There are two big lessons in this for me.

First of all, we can no longer pretend that money does not matter in school achievement. Rich people are not stupid. If money did not matter, they would not go to so much trouble to raise money for their schools. While test scores should not be the only measure of learning, they provide some evidence of the impact money can have - and the impacts extend beyond test scores and can be seen in dropout rates and other indicators as well.

Second, our society needs to decide if we want to continue the path we are on to widening the divide between rich and poor. Education is supposed to be an equalizer in our society, providing opportunities for all to excel. But this democratic ideal is threatened by the deprivation now being inflicted on students in the wrong schools. If we truly expect to reduce the achievement gap, here would be an obvious place to start.

This is not the fault of the schools, or of their teachers, or of their parents. In spite of our reluctance to see our country as anything other than a democratic meritocracy, we are seeing class war up close, and the poor are getting slaughtered.

What do you think? What do you think about these disparities? Who should be held accountable when schools are not funded equitably?

photo by Anthony Cody

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