Opinion
Equity & Diversity Commentary

Other People’s Children

By William A. Proefriedt — November 20, 2002 9 min read
We feel every child has the right to an equal educational opportunity, but we do not wish to pay for the education of our poorer neighbors' children.

When it comes to funding the education of the nation’s children, two principles are at work. The first, often enunciated, and on which there is a rhetorical consensus, is that we feel every child has the right to an equal educational opportunity. The second, almost never publicly enunciated, but effectively at work wherever funding policy is made, is that we do not wish to pay for the education of our poorer neighbors’ children. Thomas Jefferson ran into this second principle a long time ago. When he proposed a modest plan of free education for white children in Virginia, he was turned down by his fellow planters, who were willing to send their own children to be tutored or to attend private schools, but were not willing to be taxed to pay for the education of their poorer neighbors’ children.

Two centuries later, to our credit as a nation, we have achieved free, public education in all 50 states, but it is badly marred by inequalities in expenditures. The principle of equality of educational opportunity implies a rough equality in the amount of money spent each year on a child’s education. There might be differences in costs in different areas of the country; and some children, because of special needs or special talents, might require more money spent on them. Nevertheless, a rough equality of expenditure follows logically from our commitment to equality of educational opportunity. Yet large differences in what we spend on a child’s education exist among states and within states. Wealthier school districts within even one county spend more than twice as much per pupil annually than poorer districts in the same county. Parents of a child in Mississippi, of course, would be happy to have half the amount of money spent on their child’s education as is spent on a child in Westport, Conn.

Over the last few decades, many decent people in this country have understood this basic unfairness, and sought remedies for it. Recognizing that differences in educational expenditures are partly traceable to differences in real estate wealth among school districts, they have sought legislatively to change state aid formulas to help poorer districts. Others have sought to base school funding in a progressive state income tax rather than in real estate taxes. Altered state aid formulas have provided some help to poorer districts, but have hardly approached equal funding. Calls for a change from a real estate to a state income tax have not succeeded with state legislatures.

Beginning in the late ‘60s of the 20th century, those with a sense that there was something morally wrong with the unequal way in which we financed the education of the nation’s children tried to make their case in the courts. In various states, they brought cases based on the equal- protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, and later based on equal- protection clauses in various state constitutions. The argument was that children in vastly underfunded districts were denied the right to a quality education enjoyed by those in better-funded districts. These equal-protection efforts were beaten back in a number of court cases with the argument that the right to an education was not so essential that it could not be outweighed by the states making the reasonable decision to allow local districts the right to fund and govern their own schools. The funding inequalities, like collateral damage in a war, were a by-product of this rational decision.

Those who were still morally appalled by the inequalities in educational funding turned then to a new judicial strategy. Almost all states have an education clause in their constitutions, saying in effect that the state will support a system of free public schools open to all of its children. Plaintiffs pointed to these clauses and saw in them the constitutional right to a basic education. The emphasis was not on the enormous differences that existed among districts, but on the basic adequacy of the education offered to a poorer district or districts. If the funding of children’s educations could not be equalized, at least there ought to be a floor beneath which even the poorest school district should not be allowed to fall.

We have achieved free, public education in all 50 states, but it is badly marred by inequalities in expenditures.

The “adequacy” strategy was the one on which plaintiffs hung their hats in the recent New York state school funding case (Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York et. al., Jan. 9, 2001). This action was brought by a coalition of individuals and organizations concerned with the funding and quality of New York City’s schools. The procedural history of the case, going back to 1993, is a long and thorny one; but suffice it to say that in 1995 the state court of appeals had thrown back into the lap of the trial-level New York Supreme Court, New York County, the task of deciding the plaintiffs’ constitutional claim.

But the court of appeals had offered guidance. It ordered the lower court to determine what a “sound, basic education” was; secondly, the court was to assess whether the children of New York City were receiving such; and finally, if the court determined that they were not, it was to establish whether the state’s funding system was the cause of this failure. The appeals court set further guidelines for the definition of a “sound, basic education,” emphasizing the notion of minimal adequacy in a number of educational inputs, including physical facilities, quality of teachers, curriculum, and instrumentalities of learning. It included in its template for a sound, basic education the idea that students in the city schools should have the “opportunity to acquire the basic literacy, calculating, and verbal skills necessary to enable them to function as civic participants capable of voting and serving as jurors.”

Much of the case was taken up with evidence and arguments about the quality of the New York City educational experience. The court looked at, as it had been ordered to, such inputs as teacher quality, physical facilities, curriculum, class size, and educational instrumentalities. It looked also at outputs, that is, scores on standardized tests, dropout rates, college-going rates, and college success. The evidence offered by the plaintiffs in overwhelming detail painted a sorry picture of the schools in New York City. The state argued, nevertheless, that things were not so bad, and that where they were, it was the fault of those managing the city’s schools, or of inadequate local funding.

The state further denied a causative link between its funding plan and the condition of the city’s schools. It claimed the overriding cause of poor performance was the socioeconomic condition of the students. Its social- scientific hired guns made the point that, given the socioeconomic conditions of poor families in New York City, spending money on a variety of school resources would make little difference in school performance. This had been the favored argument of the political left in this country, but had always been tied to calls for income redistribution, job programs, and living-wage policies. The state, up until its involvement in this case, had never denied the efficacy of improving school resources before; in fact, its educational arms, the New York board of regents and the state education department, in their calls for higher educational standards, had consistently employed an upbeat rhetoric about the ability of teachers and schools to overcome the most difficult of socioeconomic circumstances.

In this case, however, the state left it to the plaintiffs to argue the idea that school resources, adequately funded and intelligently deployed, can have a positive effect on student learning. The state’s use of the socioeconomic argument here represented no prelude to massive redistributionist economic policies, but served as a rhetorically more acceptable “blaming the victim” defense. Certainly, social policies that address the socioeconomic conditions of large parts of New York City need to be adopted, but that hardly constitutes an argument against adequate school funding.

Justice Leland DeGrasse found for the plaintiffs. Using a somewhat expanded version of the sound, basic education idea, he concluded that the city schools were systematically falling short of his standard because of the state’s system of funding the schools. The state, he said, had failed its constitutional duty to ensure a sound, basic education. He wisely declined to become involved in the details of the remedy, leaving that to the legislature working with a variety of educational agencies in the state. He did offer some guidelines to be followed.

Gov. George E. Pataki, however, immediately appealed the decision. On June 25, 2001, a panel of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court reversed Justice DeGrasse’s decision. Justice Alfred D. Lerner, writing for the majority, argued that Justice DeGrasse had used a much too expansive definition of a “sound, basic education,” that the plaintiffs had not made the case that the quality of education offered in the public schools of New York City failed the constitutional test; and that they had, anyway, failed to prove a causal connection between that quality of education and the state funding policy.

Justice Lerner felt that Justice DeGrasse had gone “too far in stating that a sound, basic education must prepare students for employment somewhere between low-level service jobs and the most lucrative careers.” He further argued that “the evidence at trial established that the skills required to enable a person to obtain employment, vote, and serve on a jury, are imparted between grades 8 and 9, a level of skills which plaintiffs do not dispute is being provided.” In a sharply worded dissent from the majority opinion, Justice David B. Saxe said that “if the State’s constitutional mandate under the Education Article is satisfied by providing students with low-level arithmetic and reading skills, then logically, it has no meaningful obligation to provide any high school education at all.”

The principle that we do not wish to pay for the education of our poorer neighbors' children is still in the saddle riding roughshod over the children of the poor.

Justice Lerner subscribed to the state’s argument that socioeconomic conditions, rather than a lack of school resources, are at fault. The dismissive tone of his language toward the plight of the city’s children reminded me of the haughty tone British official C.E. Trevelyan adopted in his report on the Irish famine. It was the potato and the Irish character, he said, not the policies of the British government, that were responsible for the starvation of the Irish peasantry.

The plaintiffs have taken their case to the state’s highest court, the court of appeals, which this month accepted it for review. Gov. Pataki, meanwhile, attempted during his re-election campaign to distance himself from Justice Lerner’s ruling and its truncated definition of what constitutes a sound,basic education. There is also always the possibility of some relief for New York City granted by the governor and the state legislature, embarrassed by the damning evidence about the New York City schools presented at the trial.

But for now at least, the principle that we do not wish to pay for the education of our poorer neighbors’ children, subscribed to by the wealthy planters in Jefferson’s Virginia, is still in the saddle riding roughshod over the children of the poor in New York City and throughout the nation.

William A. Proefriedt is an emeritus professor of education at the City University of New York in New York City, where he teaches a course on the history of education.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Other People’s Children

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