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School Funding and the Kindness of Strangers

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It's official: the United States is becoming our own Third World country, one urban school system at a time. Children in the United States and their schools are now included in World Vision's catalog for holiday charity, right alongside poor children from around the world.

Children in El Salvador need chicks. You can give a duck to a family in Bangladesh. Kids in Zimbabwe need kids (goats). And now U.S. students are part of the program. "Many schools in low-income neighborhoods right here in the United States lack basic supplies. Help deliver books, videos, art supplies, educational games, sports equipment and more," urges the catalog.

Why is this happening?

Funding Gap #1 -- Public schools in low-income areas simply do not have enough money to function.

Let's take a close look at Illinois, for example. The latest School Funding Hall of Shame award for my state comes from the U.S. Census Bureau, which reports that Illinois is third from the bottom of all 50 states in the percentage it pays of total public school costs (33.8 percent compared with top state school funder Vermont at 88.5 percent).

Illinois also has a long history of huge school spending gaps, currently the largest in the Midwest.

For example, a 2008 Chicago Reporter analysis found that "the 6,413 students who started elementary school in (suburban) Evanston in 1994 and graduated from high school in 2007 had about $290 million more spent on their education than the same number of Chicago Public Schools students."

Funding Gap #2 -- There's a major resource disparity even within certain districts.

For example, Mayor Daley and his schools CEOs have been taking resources from struggling Chicago public schools like the library-less Whittier Elementary School, and giving them to more advantaged communities. A case in point is the $110 million recently pledged by CPS (motto: "We have no funds for your school") to build a new facility for Jones High School. The poverty rate at Jones is 50 percent; it's 97.3 percent at Whittier.

The Mayor and Chicago Public Schools get away with this because a) the system-wide budget is neither transparent nor accurate and b) the Mayor and CPS are propped up by the city's corporate honchos whose opposition to fair school-funding in Illinois goes back to PURE's 1992 Walgreen's boycott and beyond.

Funding Gap #3 -- The privatization of public schools is creating an even wider resource gap.

The propaganda film Waiting for 'Superman' highlighted the SEED public boarding school in Washington, DC, which spends about $35,000 per student, and the Harlem Children's Zone, which has an endowment of about $100 million. These are numbers a regular public school could only dream about.

As Diane Ravitch explains in the Education Week blog she writes with Deborah Meier, this kind of extra money can go a long way toward paying for HCZ's "small classes and superb facilities, including state-of-the-art science laboratories, a beautiful cafeteria, and a first-class gymnasium. The HCZ raises some $36 million a year, so the school has the best of everything and plenty of money to hire extra teachers and to pay teachers to work longer days and weeks and summers."

Few studies have been done comparing overall private funding of regular public schools to that of charter schools, but a 2002 study in California found that charter start-ups received $576 of private money per student compared with $83 for regular public school students.

However, it's very unlikely that even the charter schools on which wealthy donors are currently lavishing their beneficence will be able to keep milking those cash cows. The Penny Pritzkers of the world tend to love causes, then leave 'em. Which leads us to...

Funding Gap #4 -- The federal government could do something about Funding Gaps #1-3, but doesn't.

The federal government could be holding states' feet to the fire on funding equity rather than forcing schools to implement a bunch of "reforms" that don't work.

The Opportunity to Learn movement puts it this way: "While occasionally there are individual schools that succeed even without adequate resources, the public school systems that serve low-income students and students of color systemically fail to provide them with the quality education they need and deserve. The systemic underperformance of these students is overwhelmingly the result of federal, state, and local policies which unfairly distribute the core resources needed to guarantee all students a fair and substantive opportunity to learn."

One goal of the OTL movement is to make sure that Congress includes requirements for resource equity in the reauthorization of ESEA. Unfortunately, this looks like an uphill battle.

As our national group, Parents Across America, wrote to President Obama and Congress last May regarding the administration's ESEA plans, "this Blueprint pays almost no attention to the need to address enormous disparities in funding across and within states, saying only that 'states be asked to measure and report on resource disparities and develop a plan to tackle them.' Yet in a plan filled with heavy-handed threats and promises of financial windfalls for states that adhere to the administration's preferred approaches of closing schools, firing teachers, tying their pay to test scores, and opening more charters, this statement seems to be a mere afterthought with no consequences attached."

Buy the chicks anyway.

It's a good thing to send in the $1 or $5 (or more) to provide life-changing resources for children in El Salvador and Bangladesh.

But it's not a good thing to accept a situation in the United States where our children have to depend on the kindness of strangers to get an education. Let's get our children out of the World Vision catalog, OK?