Monday, April 20, 2015

In school funding fight, remember the big picture

Whether or not the Iowa Legislature expands state funding for Iowa schools, it won’t address the fundamental problem with how we pay for public schools.

By Jon Overton

As Iowa’s state legislators duke it out over potential increases in public K-12 funding, it’s helpful to keep in mind how we actually fund schools in the United States. And how the way we fund schools creates drastically unequal opportunities for students.

Critics of proposed increases in education funding like to trot out the argument that while the United States spends gobs of money on public education, it gets a poor return on that investment.

Yes, we do spend way more on schools than other developed countries. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported that as of 2010, the United States spent an average of $15,171 on each student (including higher education), while the average OECD nation spent just $9,313. We’re at the top of the spending list, but U.S. test scores are mediocre.

But here’s the problem with that train of thought: other developed countries also tend to have more expansive welfare programs and initiatives targeted toward reducing child poverty.

Look at Finland. It has very generous welfare programs, while the United States offers comparatively lean support for people in poverty. While Finland’s child poverty rate sits just under 5 percent, well over 20 percent of American children are in poverty.

Poverty of course is associated with hunger, unstable families, prevalent crime, and a slew of other problems that make it extremely difficult for a child to learn and excel in school.

The United States has historically used education as its primary vehicle to promote social mobility, but schools get very different levels of funding. About half of all school funding has typically been local, with property taxes making up the lion’s share. States then provide just under half, with the federal government providing a little supplemental funding.

The problem with relying heavily on property taxes is that they depend on property values, so if you live in a run-down neighborhood, your property won’t be worth very much, which means you won’t pay very much in property taxes, and local public schools won’t receive very much revenue to invest in students.

Contrast that with ritzy suburbs that have very high property values. Their schools will receive a great deal more from property taxes.

Recent housing trends reinforce this phenomenon. A Pew Research Center report from 2012 found that from 1980 to 2010, residential income segregation grew in 27 of the nation’s 30 largest metro areas. Fewer poor people lived in wealthy neighborhoods and fewer wealthy people lived in poor neighborhoods.

Minimal support for kids in poverty, a funding model based heavily on local property values, and growing income segregation are making public education extremely unbalanced. Students disadvantaged by their community are further hurt by a lack of resources in their local schools. These same schools are expected to help students get out of poverty in the first place, but without the money to pay for quality instruction and equipment, that’s an insurmountably tall order.

Meanwhile, most economically advantaged students live in communities where schools offer a plethora of resources to help them succeed.

However much funding the Iowa General Assembly decides to give public schools during the legislative session, unequal opportunity in the education system will continue to make life difficult for children born into poverty through no fault of their own.

Jon Overton is the Media Editor of Iowa Peace Network and an undergraduate at the University of Iowa studying Ethics & Public Policy and Sociology.

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