Families & the Community Opinion

‘Fair’ School Funding and the Enrichment Gap

By John T. McCrann — September 19, 2016 3 min read
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“What did you do this summer?”

The question is innocent enough, but at an income diverse school like mine, the answers reveal the stark reality of our nation’s growing income inequality:

“I went to Italy!”
“I slept.”
“I spent a month at camp!”
“I took care of my little brother.”

It’s no secret that middle and high income families spend more on their children than low income families. In my interactions with students, I see that this difference in spending translates into more learning and social skill building experiences which, in turn, can lead to greater success in school.

The Washington Center of Equitable growth describes this “enrichment gap:"

“These expenditures generally complement spending on education. Examples include books, movies, and summer camps. Children learn in the classroom, but that process doesn’t stop there. By giving their children more opportunities to engage in activities that help develop knowledge or inter-personal skills, parents can strengthen the efforts made in the classroom.”

Their study showed that a family in the top 20% of income earners spends $7,557 more dollars on this type of activity in 2005-2006 than a family in the bottom 20% of income earners (up from a substantial but comparatively paltry $2,701 gap in 1972).

The 9th graders in my Algebra class were 3 years old in 2005 and it’s likely that students at both ends of that spending spectrum were sitting in my room this morning. What experiences did those $7,557 dollars buy? What role does the sum total of $7,557 a year over their 14 years play in how ready they are for high school? What will different in experiences purchased by those dollars mean for how well they do in high school and beyond?

We will never know the answer to those questions. Perhaps, as some argue, these enrichment dollars are not particularly well spent and don’t make that much of a difference in individual educational outcomes. Certainly, toxic stress and adverse childhood experiences (more likely to be experienced by low income students) factor into the negative side of the metaphorical ledger that the 9th graders in my class brought with them on their first day of school.

Of course, every child is unique and I know first-hand that strong schools and teachers can work to overcome these gaps, but this dollar amount provides an interesting figure in thinking about school funding.

As my students and I start this school year, Governor Chris Christie is in a fight for what he calls the Fairness Formula on the other side of the Hudson River. His proposal would radically redistribute New Jersey state school funds, giving impoverished districts the same amount of state aid as some of the wealthiest school districts in the country.

We know that a bill’s name often bears little resemblance to its eventual impact, but this misnomer seems like an extreme and cruel example. Christie’s formula not only says that the $100,000+ which upper income families spend on enrichment before students reach 9th grade are irrelevant, it robs precious state dollars from cash-strapped districts to give them even more.

That’s not what I would call “fair.”

The research on the enrichment gap is not all bad news for low income students. We know that districts and communities can overcome the gap with efficient, well-managed programs (One of my favorite such programs, the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Youth Opportunities Program, trains and supports youth workers who take students on outdoor trips).

We should empower low income districts to commit to the kinds of deep learning experiences that middle and high income families self-fund. We should expand experiential and arts education for students in poverty, not cut them. To do this, states must recognize their a democratic responsibility to support that work.

Photo by lentemamaatje //pixabay.com/en/holiday-children-play-relax-1463951/. Wide gaps in spending on summer enrichment experiences like camps and vacation translates into real differences in students’ school readiness.

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