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Teachers Make Handy Scapegoats, But Spiraling Inequality Is Really What Ails Our Education System

Stanford University scholar Linda Darling-Hammond explains the connection.

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In most of the countries that rank near the top and have equitable outcomes, they spend the same amount per child in each school and sometimes they add money when they have low income or new immigrants in a school. It is just about the reverse in the United States: we have some states that spend as much as three times more than other states, and the high spenders are not surprisingly the high achievers, like Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont.

The low achievers are not surprisingly the low spenders – Mississippi, California, Louisiana. But then within states it’s quite typical for the high-spending districts to spend three or four times as much as the low-spending districts. In New York right now, the spending out in Scarsdale or Long Island is significantly higher than the spending in New York City, which in turn is higher than some of the poor rural areas.

That translates into differential salaries, differential working conditions, differential class sizes, etc. All of those things add up to produce a very different quality of education from one school community to the other.

JH: As a Californian, professor, I have to tell you how happy I am to be lumped in with Mississippi and Alabama. We’re not doing a great job right now.

LDH: California essentially made itself a Southern state by disinvesting its schools over the last 20 years.

JH: And they did that by passing a requirement that you need a super-majority vote to raise taxes, which has caused us basically to ruin what was once a gem of our educational system.

Now we know that in the last 40 years the United States has seen a dramatic increase in inequality. That’s not in dispute -- everybody agrees with that. Have the funding disparities over that time become more pronounced as well? I know that there are various federal programs that try to equalize these things; how affective are they? What is the status of school inequality in terms of funding over that period of time?

LDH: It’s gotten worse. The point in our history at which we had the highest rate of equity in funding and spendingwas in the 1970s. In fact, the “war on poverty” -- the Great Society period -- made a big difference; there was far less childhood poverty than there is now. Unemployment was lower, there was a lot of federal money going into urban school districts and poor rural schools districts and school finance litigation had caused quite a bit of equalization. In 1975, for the first time, the rate of black, Latino and white students going to college was exactly equal. We had made a lot of strides.

But most of those programs were eliminated or greatly reduced in the 1980s as part of the Reagan revolution and so we saw the federal dollars get cut in half for public schools. Almost all of that came out of equity-oriented programs that were facilitating both fiscal equity and school desegregation – and making investments in tiny communities.

Similarly, during the 1990s -- during the 1980s and the 1990s -- we had many states doing as California did: putting in place tax caps and other strategies to make it harder to invest in public education and those reforms basically increased the inequality in funding for schools and in the other resources that communities receive.

JH: Now we all know that educational outcomes aren’t only influenced by schools. There’s more going on, like the involvement of parents. What are the direct effects of poverty on educational outcomes. These kids are poor, but are they less prepared to learn when they come into the classroom?

 
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