Elizabeth Holtzapple, Ph.D. – April 2016
In 2014 approximately 48.6 million young people were enrolled in public schools in the United States. Public education accounts for 90 percent of kindergarten through grade 12 education in the US. This percentage has been rising over the past decade. But public education, most specifically urban public education, is labeled as a failing institution. Given that most Americans go through the public education system and most of us pay for it, what does it look like? What might educational equity and opportunity look like? I will try to briefly answer three questions: 1) are there equitable costs to taxpayers? 2) are there equitable opportunities and outcomes for students? 3) what do classrooms look like and how do they vary. My biases are that there is no equity for taxpayers, equality of educational opportunity is hard to find and our educational system does an excellent job of replicating our current social class structures.
Do students receive equitable levels of educational effort as measured by money? Is the system equitable for taxpayers
In 1973 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez that education is not a fundamental Constitutional right because education is not specifically referred to in the U.S. Constitution. SCOTUS stated that the “undisputed importance” of education would not allow it to depart from its usual standard. As a consequence of the SCOTUS decision, school funding decisions and school funding formulas are generally determined at the state level.
Where does the money come from and how much is there? Federal funding of public schools only started with the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act which provided for equal access for students.
The federal government’s contribution has dramatically increased over the past several decades but it is still relatively small at about 12 percent. About 44 percent each comes from state and local sources. Much of the support from the federal government specifically supports the education of students with disabilities, students who are economically disadvantaged, and students enrolled in career and vocational education.
How much do districts in Ohio spend per each student? In fiscal year 2014 the average was $10,526 with a range from about $4,200 to over $38,000. This includes revenue from federal, state and local sources. Levels of federal funding for districts are generally determined by actual counts of students with disabilities, students who are economically disadvantaged and those receiving specific vocational programming.
How does what Ohio spend compare to other states? In the 2011-2012 school year the average spending per student by states and the District of Columbia ranged from a high of $20,000 in DC followed by New York, New Jersey, Alaska and Connecticut. The lower tier includes Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arizona, Idaho and lowest in Utah at $6,250. The lower spending states tend to be characterized by poorly performing schools or homogeneous student populations.
In Ohio the state contribution is determined by a state formula which has four different times been found to be unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court, but little has been done about the problem despite the Ohio Supreme Court stating in 1997 “we send a clear message to law makers: The time has come to fix the system. Let there be no misunderstanding. Ohio’s public school financing scheme must undergo a complete systematic overhaul.” The fourth ruling against the system was in 2002 and few changes have been implemented. The majority of other states have had similar legal suits with similar outcomes. For example, in South Carolina in 2014 the state was starting to redistribute educational funding based on a 20 year legal suit.
The state attempts to balance districts ability to pay with varying levels of state support. But inequities arise. One source of the inequity in Ohio is the formula’s reliance on real estate taxes. Communities with high percentages of public buildings such as Columbus, receive higher state contributions because the communities have an overall deflated property value. Another inequity in Ohio in the formula for calculating the state contribution is that the state uses average (mean) income and not median income. Cincinnati is particularly impacted by the use of mean income. Cincinnati, unlike other metropolitan areas in Ohio retained substantial wealth within the district limits. In Cleveland, for example, however, the urban wealth was always concentrated in neighborhoods that were not part of the city schools such as Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights. The wealthy families, in Cincinnati increase the mean wealth of a city but do not substantially move the median calculation.
At the local level the contribution is generally what the community will bear. When we vote for school levies we determine what levels of spending our local district can engage in and what level of taxation we are willing to support. When we vote for levies for public schools we aren’t just voting for services for public school children. Public school districts provide transportation to private, parochial and charter schools. They provide additional educational programming for students with low incomes, public districts provide vocational and special education services, including screening and diagnosis to students in private and parochial schools. They educate students in specialized facilities. This is true across the country. And in Cincinnati, the public charter schools are directly funded by the school district.
The high property values and average wealth in certain communities does not just create inequities in school funding formulas, it has impacted the extent to which the state contributed to extensive school building projects over the past decade and a half. Cincinnati was able to rebuild or renovate all of its school buildings over the past 15 years, thanks in large part to a successful passage of a building levy in 2001. The state helped support the cost of the building project. Cincinnati received 23 percent of the costs of the Facilities Master Plan from the state. Of the ten of so projects that were completed in 2014, the year the CPS plan was completed, the closest to the state share was 42 percent for Circleville City. The other districts completed that year received from 48% to 75% of the funds from the state, substantially more that CPS. Other local districts that were completed in the last several years all received a high percentage of the costs from the state, including 59 percent for Hamilton City and 61 percent for Dayton City, both completed in 2012. Toledo, which completed its building project in 2013, received 77 percent of the costs from the state. Ross local in Butler County comes close to CPS with only 28 percent. The highest percentages reported are 86 percent to 87 percent. Cincinnati’s 23 percent becomes hard to understand.
Are our public schools failing?
For decades we have been hearing from business and civic organizations about our failing schools. There is a fairly long history of federal government commissions that have studied and reported on the conditions of American Education. There was a Truman report, one for Eisenhower, one for Kennedy and for George W. Bush. The report, however, that lead to the decades long pursuit of education reform is the Nation at Risk Report that was released in 1983. This was during the height of the cold war.
The report stated that Our Nation is at risk. . . The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very nation as a people. . . If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today we might well have viewed it as an act of war. . . We have, in effect been committing an act of unthinkable unilateral educational disarmament.” So the idea of failing public schools, in general, has been an issue for at least 30 years.
The commission members, like many of the indictments against schools today, generally concluded that the problems of US schools were mostly caused by lazy students and poor teachers. Administrative incompetency, poverty, inequality and racial discrimination were not considered possible reasons. There was a wide range of recommendations that came out of the report but 25 years later a follow-up report concluded that few of the recommendations of the report had been implemented.
But there are some recommendations that have taken traction, though it took decades. The Common Core standards were eventually adopted by 42 states, however, many states have backed away from them in the past couple of years. The No Child Left Behind legislation of 2001 resulted in over-testing in the schools and allows for schools and teachers to be held accountable for their successes and failures as measured by student performance and growth which is measured by standardized test scores. So schools can now receive failing grades. And students get to know that the school they attend is an F or an A school. No one ever talks about what this does to kids. And the schools with poor grades are usually educating poor students. The 2010 Race to the Top initiative by the Obama administration linked opportunities for state funding to school and teacher accountability systems based on student test scores. I will say that since I retired there has been a real backing off, across the nation, of the testing craze of the past 15 years and increased accountability due to testing may be following.
While accountability increased for both teachers and schools there has not been parallel improved professional status and salaries for teachers. Adjusted for inflation, teachers’ average salaries increased about 17% from 1983 to 2010, despite increased standards for them and increased professional development requirements.
So we have had an ongoing school reform movement over the past 30 plus years. But, were schools really better forty, fifty of sixty years ago? Compared to 50 or 60 years ago, public schools now offer high quality education such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs. More remedial classes are offered today. But the public schools now have more students with special needs, students who don’t read English, are from troubled families and have fewer dropouts. And while we hear wild stories of out of control classrooms, the reality is that public schools are often the safest places for children in tough neighborhoods.
So where do our often false ideas about a supposedly failing public education system come from? Diane Ravitch sees the misguided reform movement as emanating from billionaires and right wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation for the purpose of destroying public education and teacher unions. So why should we pay any attention to Diane Ravitch – might she not be another left leaning kook? Diane Ravitch served as the Assistant Sectary of Education under Lamar Alexander from 1991-1993. She was appointed to public office by George Herbert Walker Bush and later by Bill Clinton. In 2010 she renounced her earlier support for testing and choice stating that the best predictor of low academic performance is poverty, not bad teachers. But we live in a world where billionaires still try (and are fairly successful) at driving the public education system. For example, On Morning Joe on November 3, 2015 Charles Koch answered the question of why are the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer with the following “An educational system that isn’t providing the disadvantaged with the values and skills required for success. Learning to work.” I’ll come back to this later
What much of the public knows about schools they know from news reporting and popular culture. 2012 was a banner year for documentaries that touted the astounding accomplishments of public charter schools. Charter schools were espoused by Albert Shankar who was president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) from 1974-1997. He first proposed the idea in 1988 but had backed off of it 5 years later when he realized that for-profit organizations saw it as a business agreement from which money could be made. Public charters are one of the “choice” options proposed by educational reformers. Other options are voucher programs that provide some families with private and parochial school vouchers. In 2012 ‘Waiting for Superman” received a lot of coverage and a lot of people saw it. The movie focuses on families trying to escape their horrible public schools by getting one of the few seats available in one of the high performing charter schools. Other documentaries include The Lottery from 2010 and The Cartel from 2009. The message of these films has become familiar: That American public education is a failed enterprise. The problem is not money according to this line of thinking; public schools already spend too much. The problem is that test scores are low because there are so many bad teachers, whose jobs are protected by powerful unions. So the rhetoric continues: The problem is that students dropout because the schools fail them, but they could accomplish anything if they could be saved from bad teachers. The premise is that students would get higher test scores if schools could fire more bad teachers and pay more to good ones. The message is that the only hope for the future of our society, especially for poor Black and Hispanic children, is escape from public schools, especially to charter schools, many of them operating to make a profit and most of them doing no better that public schools. A study by Stanford economist Margaret Raymond found that in a study of 5,000 charter schools that 17 percent were superior to matched public schools, 37% were worse and 46% were statistically the same. One of the schools highlighted in the documentary “Waiting for Superman” had assets of $200 million and a president that earns $400,000 plus a year. Another one of the schools spends $35,000 per year per student.
In 2015, a new documentary by Michael Moore “Where to Invade Next” premiered at the Toronto film festival held in September. While the documentary is not about public education per se there are several segments that address where we are. The documentary looks at some countries that might be getting it right. He goes to France for school food where students have about an hour for lunch that includes superb healthy food that is served family style. Children learn in school how to eat healthy and well. French do not suffer as much as Americans from obesity and lifestyle diseases. He goes to Finland which has what has, arguably, the best public schools in the world. We come in around 30th. And they do it with shorter school days, shorter school years and minimal homework. They teach the “whole person” and art and music are critical parts of the curriculum. Private, tuition charging schools are illegal so students from all socio-economic groups are educated together (unless they leave the country). They learn to be friends. And there is Germany which does not hide its head in the sand about its ugly history, it attempts to atone for its cruel history with constant reminders of the Holocaust in the form of city monuments, memorials and public art and honest teaching in the schools.
Moore also goes to Slovenia where college tuition does not exist and attempts to impose it are met with immediate successful student protests. He interviews some American students who are attending University (for free) in Slovenia where a large number of courses of study are taught in English.
So What Do We Spend the Money On? What Does it Look Like in the Classroom?
About 60 percent of school revenue is spent on instruction including teacher salaries, text books and classroom supplies. About $400 per student is spent on the cafeteria and almost $500 on transportation. Other costs include facilities construction and maintenance, administration, support staff and co/extra-curricular activities (sports and clubs). English Language Learners and special needs students cost more to educate. Many special needs students have a full time teaching assistant assigned to them. Some classrooms for special needs students are restricted to eight students and many of these may have one on one teaching assistants. And, the percentage of special needs in a district can vary widely. Cincinnati averages about 30% of their students with Special Needs. The numbers increase as children are poisoned by lead in the air they breathe and the water they drink and suffer developmental problems impacted by diet. As families are drawn to a facility which provides specialized services to students with autism and other disorders (Children’s Hospital) there is an impact on the local school district.
Now I turn to some observations I have made, especially from the last year where I have been substitute teaching in Hamilton County Schools since January 2015. I have served as a substitute teacher in about 11 school districts, almost exclusively in elementary classes. I have worked in Madeira, Forest Hills, and Mariemont, three primarily middle class school districts. I have spent a lot of time in St. Bernard/Elmwood Place, Reading Community, Winton Woods, North College Hill, and Mt. Auburn International Academy which are predominately poorer, working class districts. I work in Norwood, Deer Park and Northwest (Colerain) which seem more mixed as to socio-economic status but generally lower.
Madeira, Mariemont and Forest Hills, the higher SES districts, have the lowest daily rates for their substitute teachers. Winton Woods, St. Bernard and North College Hill, low SES districts are 20% higher and Cincinnati Public Schools has the highest rate in the county. The discrepancy is sometimes referred to as “combat pay”.
So aside from higher SES districts paying lower wages what other differences are there?
Uniforms are common in low SES districts. High SES classrooms are student focused, individualistic and it is common to find students working on the floor, in corners and under tables. They work quietly in pairs, in groups or by themselves and move around the room. They are expected to behave but are expected to explore and learn. In the winter they might have shorts and flip flops on or a party dress. Low SES students are in authoritarian, teacher led classrooms. The students are expected to stay in their seats, they are expected to mostly work alone. Their desks are often facing forward lecture style.
Higher SES districts tend to have later starting and ending time. Higher SES districts have better maintained and more attractive buildings. Most children in lower SES schools are grouped by abilities – some schools starting in Kindergarten. They don’t learn from their peers or learn to help and tolerate one another. There are no role models in some classes. There is literally no one doing it right.
The higher SES districts use some of that money that they don’t spend on combat pay (higher SES districts tend to pay teachers less in general) on technology. In Mariemont and Forest Hills and Norwood students have one-on-one computing devices, tablets at the lower grades (1-3) and laptops or chrome books at the higher grades (4-6). In Winton Woods, Northwest, Reading, St.Bernard-Elmwood Place, North College Hill computers are rare. They might have a smart board or an elmo, but kids don’t have frequent access to technology. Most schools seem to have adequate classroom supplies and materials, although pencils and decent pencil sharpeners are often a rarity. Higher SES districts seem to have slightly lower class sizes, but I have been in classrooms in Reading and St. Bernard with fewer than 15 students – the number that research suggests is really necessary in order to promote quality learning. Even the food is different. Healthier, more varied foods are found in the higher SES districts. And circle time disappears very early in low SES districts if it ever existed at all. Circle time is when students learn how to learn and work together, to socialize and learn to get along.
Basically, the schools are training students for the jobs they are most likely to have based on the wealth of their neighborhood. Poor kids are taught to follow orders, wear a uniform, be at work early, eat a lousy diet and rely on paper and pencil in a technology driven world. Middle class kids are taught to explore, to think for themselves and work in teams. They learn to be collegial. They dress to express themselves, eat healthy diets and are technologically savvy. They learn to start their day later than the poor kids. Our public schools still function in the 21st century like they did in the early 20th century; to replicate society. For the majority of Americans who attended public schools, and poor Americans in particular, this is a problem.
So what is it really like? Here is my day at Mt. Auburn. It is a Tuesday afternoon in late October. I knew I was in trouble. Thank goodness I only signed up for a ½ day. It took the school staff 25 minutes to get me to the room. I had to be escorted there. I’m not sure if they didn’t trust me or the students or some combination. The school has grades kindergarten through 12. As I approached the classroom I could hear the regular teacher and kids all screaming. It was a fourth grade class with about 25 students. The students were all supposed to be quiet with their heads on the desk. There was about 3 hours left in the school day. The teacher provided an 8 page worksheet that had both arithmetic and English Language Arts questions. Students were expected to work quietly in their seats. I should have walked out when she explained this – these are fourth graders! And there are more than 25 or them. The students were all in uniforms – polo shirts and dark slacks or skirts. The desks were in rows facing forward. They faced the blackboard and the teacher’s desk. The classroom was over crowded. There was not a computer in the room, not a tablet. Students were not permitted to sharpen their own pencils. Students were to work quietly and alone, but not a one of them was able to even do the work without assistance. It was chaotic. The classroom was being disciplined by having minutes taken away from recess. By the time I got there, they already weren’t going to have recess for the next 2 weeks. After a while I no longer broke up the fights – including the fist fights. I just let them run around the room shrieking. I received a message via the intercom about a student whose parent was waiting in the office. The noise made it impossible to hear which student was being called down. After about 1 ½ hours the kids just played. I let them get games out and some semblance of order was restored. At dismissal I was locked out of the classroom where my purse – most importantly my car keys – was locked in. I was told I would not want to leave anything unattended so it was a good thing. There was a UC undergrad who was working as a custodian. He told me about the second grader who recently lit a joint in class and the parent who was indignant that the school would not return the kid’s pot. I have not been back to Mt Auburn International Academy.
I had a similar experience during a half day in a fourth grade classroom at North College Hill. The kids, like at Mt. Auburn, are sweet but unruly. But not as unruly. The kids are in uniform. From 12 noon to 3:15 there is only 1 hour 15 minutes scheduled for instruction/formal learning. There is a 30 minute lunch, a 15 minute bathroom break, 10 minute cleanup, 20 minute recess and 20 minutes devoted to packing up at the end of the day. The morning was similarly unproductive. I spent another day at North College Hill. I was in a second grade class of 28 students with a teaching assistant. This was January, half way through the school year. I told her I probably wouldn’t remember all of their names and she said she didn’t know them. Later that day a young girl complained that the teaching assistant didn’t know her name and just called her “little girl”. While I mentioned it to the teaching assistant I doubt that it made any difference. A more recent return to North College Hill was with unmanageable first graders who had spent the previous year in kindergarten classes that were 34 students each. None of the North College Hill classes had circle time.
About a week after my Mt. Auburn adventure I had a fifth grade assignment in Forest Hills. The school is located in a residential area with small, modest homes. There are four fifth grade teachers; one teaches math, one science, one reading and I have social studies and writing that day. We had four blocks and there was a one hour specials class where they went to music or art or PE or media/library. They had a recess and all the kids went out. The schedule included a response to intervention period where students had extra work in math or ELA specific to their needs. The students started the day entering the room, they took their own attendance and marked their lunch choice. They hung up their backpacks. They took out a book and started reading until the announcements. After the pledge and announcements, we started the day. They were finishing a personal narrative essay with an emphasis on using sensory words. They were finishing their final draft so they were all writing on a computer and using google documents. This allowed them to share their writing with all four teachers and with fellow classmates for peer editing. They were all using a chrome book that was provided by the school. As was customary in the room I told them they could find somewhere comfortable to work and they could work alone, with a friend or small group. They scattered about. Some stayed at desks some in corners on the floor, or in the hallway. Repeat the scene four times during the day. Some groups were a little noisy but one group were quiet as church mice. I think if I had taken a nap they would have kept on working.
Mt. Auburn and Forest Hills are two sides of the coin. Most days fall somewhere in between. I often teach special education pre-school and special education. I will also teach PE or Art. Those days are very different but most students are in regular education classes like Mt. Auburn, North College Hill and Forest Hills. These other assignments seem to require a special skills set. I have to be willing to sing (I am both tone deaf and unable to carry a tune) and dance and jump, and, of course, read upside down and sit on the floor. I need to find escaped preschoolers, and calm explosive children.
Some of my favorite questions/comments from kids
- I know what Mrs. and Miss are, what is Ms.?
- How old are you?
- Are you married
- Were we good?
- Was I good?
- Do you know that or the did our teacher leave you the answer key?
- You can answer our questions, most substitutes can’t.
- Do you have kids?
- You are nice, can you come back?
Some of the saddest comments are:
- You are the best teacher ever.
- I wish you were my teacher.
- I wish you were my mom.
So many kids I work with come from homes most of us can’t imagine. The parents who gave their child the name Zero. Zero means, nothing, of no value. Kids who when they are writing write that they are looking forward to summer because that is when their dad gets out, the little fourth grader who hates everyone in his family and the only good thing he can say about himself is that he gets angry easy. Or the little boy whose both parents are in prison for murdering someone two years ago.
Obviously, the odds are stacked against these kids. These are not kids who are going to be successful in schools that provide less than a high quality opportunity. I know that most of the people in the schools care and are trying but I am not sure it is enough or the right thing. Money alone won’t solve the problem, but thinking about what public education is really doing is something we all need to think about and start doing something about unless we are satisfied with that little girl growing up to be the one who gets out this summer or the preschooler who grows up to murder like his parents did.
What most of these kids are missing is not the classroom book learning, it is socio-emotional learning, cultural learning and the extracurricular activities that is necessary if the public schools are to become more than an institution that replicates the current class structure.
When we talk about good schools and good school districts we almost always mean schools with students from middle class homes. Creating more schools that promote the learning opportunities of these schools is expensive. Money for smaller classes, and more technology. More money for more teachers and larger school buildings.