The New York Times reported this week that while the racial gap in educational attainment has been shrinking, the class gap has been growing:
Now, I’m perfectly happy to admit that there are plenty of problems with our education system that are more complicated than can be explained by simple underfunding.
But what’s supposed to be the case for unequal spending per student?
If it’s really true that underfunded schools in low-income areas have more problems than just money, everybody will see that’s the case when we equalize spending per student and the problems still aren’t gone.
But it’ll definitely fix some problems, like schools’ ability to pay for after-school programs and athletics and textbooks, and so on.
I think the main reason we aren’t doing this comes down to disagreements about progressive taxation.
Conservatives – and, to be fair, a lot of suburban Democrats – like the idea of the school tax as fee. We pay more, and our kids get better-funded schools. You pay less, and your kids get worse-funded schools. How much quality you are entitled to depends on how much you pay, just like any other good. There’s no redistribution.
That is a truly hideous way to think about public education, but that’s the philosophy at the heart of the current system. That’s why you can have tony state-of-the-art suburban megaschools just a few miles away from dilapidated urban schools – conveniently separated by an arbitrary political boundary.
I don’t know if the problem of income-segregated school districts will ever be solvable, politically speaking, but the state can be a force for social justice by topping up budgets in poor districts to equalize spending per student. One of the first things Democrats need to do when they eventually retake power in Harrisburg is bring back Ed Rendell’s progressive formula for aid to school districts.