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Inequity in funding of public education raises justice issues

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

In the play "A Man For All Seasons," Thomas More invokes the legal principle that "silence signifies consent." It didn't do him much good, of course, but he was right -- a failure to speak up is usually construed in law as acceptance of the status quo.

In American public education, the status quo is a system that explicitly favors the offspring of the wealthy over poor and minority children. Because local governments provide almost half of the cost of K-12 education, differences in wealth among communities translate into disparate levels of resources for schools. Some affluent suburban school districts spend two or three times more on the education of their children than either urban or rural communities can afford.

In the case of the urban/suburban comparison, these differences also break down along racial lines, with public policy consequently favoring the education of white children over minorities. Critic Jonathan Kozol has called the system "apartheid education."

If one applies More's standard, the institutional Catholic church has signaled tacit consent to the injustices in the public system. While church leaders have spoken aggressively to the needs of Catholic schools, there has been only discrete silence, or, at most, ambiguous statements of general principles concerning the way America's public schools provide differing educational opportunities based on class and race.

During the past 25 years, legal and political challenges to this system have defined the burning social justice issue in the arena of educational policy. Despite all the sound and fury devoted to proposals such as vouchers, national standards and school safety, most experts agree that the bulk of poor and minority students will not receive educations comparable to what is available in America's best suburban schools, either public or private, until this deeper structural question of funding is resolved.

The U.S. Catholic Conference, the official voice of the country's bishops, has said nothing directly on the issue. Officials at 10 state Catholic Conferences, all in states that have been the focus of litigation and heated political controversy, were contacted for this article. Not one had issued a position paper, filed an amicus curiae brief or taken any other public action to demonstrate support for the cause of educational justice.

It's not that the leadership of the church is opposed to the idea of fairness for poor and minority children. To a person, every official contacted for this article regards the present system as morally objectionable. Nor is it the case that individual Catholics, acting out of deeply held faith convictions, haven't spoken to the need for justice. The point, however, is that these individual reactions have yet to be translated into any sort of official church policy or advocacy effort.

"While we maintain our own schools in Harlem or East Los Angeles, we're not raising our voices at school board meetings and in the state legislatures for more equitable funding of the public schools in those communities," said Jay Dolan, professor at Notre Dame University and author of The American Catholic Experience. "Since public schools serve the vast majority of children, the failure of the church to speak out on their behalf should give all of us pause."

The United States has a strong tradition of local control of education. Local control has traditionally also meant local funding. Every state except Hawaii, which has a single state-wide school district, relies on local governments to provide at least some funding for its schools. According to a 1997 General Accounting Office study, local governments provide an average of 47.8 percent of educational expenses, with states funding 45.2 percent, and the federal government kicking in the remaining 7 percent.

Reliance on local funding means that affluent districts can spend far more on the education of their children. "Local control has always been a part of our education system. We see schools as a community activity, and the attitude tends to be that if my community is able and willing to spend more, then so be it," said Mary Fulton, policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States, a research group centered in Denver. The result is that the quality of public education in America is largely dependent on where one lives.

Racial inequality

Vinton County High School, in a property-poor district of Ohio, relies on a coal heater, producing an acrid scent of smoke throughout the school building for much of the year. Textbooks are several generations old. At Dublin Coffman High School, also located in Ohio but situated in a school district that includes the corporate headquarters of several high tech companies, the $27 million facility provides state-of-the-art science labs, a computer for almost every student, a well equipped, plush library and a bucolic campus setting.

There is an overtone of racial inequality involved in these disparities, since, at least in urban areas, the poor districts tend to be heavily minority and the more affluent are heavily white. Kozol, who has authored several books chronicling the "savage inequalities" this system produces, has called it "the last vestige of de jure discrimination in America."

These inequities have been a major preoccupation of educational law for the past 25 years. While the United States Supreme Court ruled in the 1973 San Antonio v. Rodriguez case that education was not a right protected by the federal constitution, most state constitutions do provide explicit promises of educational opportunity.

On the basis of such clauses, 36 state supreme courts have heard challenges to systems of educational finance. Thirty lawsuits have originated since 1989 when the Kentucky Supreme Court went beyond simple equity and ruled that the system of school finance in that state was producing an inadequate education, triggering massive structural change.

In 15 cases since 1989, courts have found funding mechanisms unconstitutional, the most recent example being the DeRolph v. Ohio decision, handed down March 24. In nine other cases, judges have relied on a more narrow reading of the state constitution or have treated the issue as a legislative, rather than judicial, matter. Six cases are still pending.

Paper victories

Even with success in the state courts, inequities in per-pupil expenditures among school districts have proved notoriously difficult to remedy. "Law books are filled with wonderful paper victories that have never been implemented," said Paul Trachtenberg of the Education Law Center in New Jersey, the group that spearheaded the Abbott v. Burke litigation in that state. He pointed out that the state supreme court in New Jersey has found that state's finance system inadequate nine times, and yet gaps still exist between rich and poor districts.

Observers say that the reason disparities endure, despite judicial orders to the contrary, is that implementation is almost always left to the political process. The pattern is for the court to order the state legislature to provide a solution within a specified period of time. The forces that control most state legislatures are often unfriendly to fundamental reform. "State political systems are principally run by affluent, suburban folks who have the most clout," said Bob Peterson, a fifth-grade teacher in Milwaukee's public school system and a member of a public school advocacy group called Rethinking Schools. "People maneuvering on school finance issues tend to have this bias. It's a hard political nut to crack."

When faced with an unfavorable ruling, a state legislature has two options. The first is to redistribute existing resources away from wealthy districts to poorer ones. Going this route pits one group of districts against another and makes for a bloody political fight. "Every legislator represents at least one school district, and so it's hand-to-hand combat all the way," Fulton said.

Understandably, suburban legislators and their constituencies balk at lowering the quality of education in their districts for the sake of across-the-board equity. The other option is to increase spending in the poor districts to match the more affluent. This is the course of action demanded by the groups who bring the lawsuits, for whom the goal is not tearing down the affluent districts, but lifting up everyone else to the same level. "We see the suburbs as where we want to get," said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center. "The idea is to provide everyone with a quality education, not to take away resources from schools that are already high-performing."

While this approach preserves school quality, it nevertheless tends to alienate the suburbs on different grounds, since those voters are also the most staunchly opposed to taxation. In New Jersey, the one state that tried boosting educational spending in dollar amounts sufficient to make a real difference, Gov. Jim Florio was chased from office in a firestorm of protest over tax increases. This object lesson has not been lost on politicians elsewhere. "This idea [of spending more on education] runs counter to the present agenda of our political life," said Stan Karp, a New Jersey public school teacher and, like Peterson, a member of Rethinking Schools. "It may be the only solution, but it's not very politically viable, especially after what happened here in New Jersey."

Ohio example

Ohio currently provides a textbook example of how these debates play out. Following last month's supreme court decision, the Republican vice-chair of the state finance and appropriations committee, Rep. Ronald Amstutz, immediately sent a warning signal to the suburbs. "The winners are going to be the districts that are not well-to-do," he told the Akron Beacon-Journal. "The losers are going to be the districts that are well-to-do."

The next day, Republican Gov. George Voinovich raised the specter of tax increases needed to comply with the court's mandate. "The majority opinion is a thinly veiled call for a massive multibillion-dollar tax increase in the state of Ohio," he said. Both men broadly hinted that since judges in their state are elected, 1998 may be payback time if the decision leads either to taking money out of suburban schools, or to raising taxes in order to fund rural and urban districts at comparable levels.

Karp, like virtually every participant in this debate, agreed that spending more money, by itself, will not solve America's educational problems. "New funding shouldn't be tied to business as usual. We need real reform in local control of curriculum, testing, and governance," he said.

Still, when affluent students receive double what poor students do, it's hard to escape the conclusion that money is part of the problem. "The biggest lie in education is that it's not about the money. Of course it's about the money," said Jeff Waide, an English teacher at Los Angeles High School, the oldest secondary school in the sprawling Los Angeles Unified School District. Los Angeles High School was once the crown jewel of the city's school system (its swimming pool, for example, was built for the 1932 Olympics). Today, despite heroic efforts to keep it running, the school is in poor condition. Hallways are covered with graffiti and the bathrooms are filthy. It serves a population that is almost entirely Hispanic and Black. "These kids know they don't matter," Waide said. "If they mattered, they would have decent textbooks. We would fix the hallways, we would clean the bathrooms ... we would provide them with an educational experience that tells them we care.

"They're certainly not getting it right now."

While the politics of state legislatures may explain why judicial demands for equity have yet to bear fruit, observers have little doubt about the ultimate basis for disparities in the American educational system: racism. "We certainly cannot accept this bizarre idea that money and race and a great deal of racial hatred are not at the heart of the school problem in the cities of America," Kozol said.

Statistics bear Kozol out. The 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision, which ordered the integration of American schools, triggered a massive relocation of affluent whites, and with them, taxable property, to the suburbs. According to Civil Rights Commission figures, in 1950 cities had higher per-pupil expenditures than suburbs in 10 of the 12 largest metropolitan areas in America. By 1964, suburbs outspent cities in seven of these metropolitan areas, and significantly narrowed the gap in four others. Today, most suburban districts dwarf both urban and rural districts in per-pupil spending; according to the General Accounting Office, the average gap is 24 percent, but some disparities are more than 100 percent.

Per-pupil spending is not the only measure of the correlation between race and educational opportunity. According to another General Accounting Office report, schools in central cities and schools with more than a 50 percent minority population are more likely to have insufficient technology and unsatisfactory environmental conditions. The GAO concluded that America has a $112 billion problem with school facilities, much of it concentrated in schools that serve minority student populations.

Given that the poorest districts tend to be heavily minority and that the most affluent districts tend to be white, there's general agreement that race plays a significant role in the allocation of educational resources. Students themselves are certainly aware of the connection. This point became clear in a recent conversation with Waide's senior English class at Los Angeles High School. Students were quick to answer what their school would be like if more white faces were present.

"More computers," one said. "It would be a lot safer," another volunteered. "Maybe they'd clean the bathrooms."

"We'd go on field trips and have guest speakers." And so on.

When the class, composed entirely of Hispanics, was asked why there aren't more white students in the school, one young man answered to nods and general agreement. "Because they don't like us," he said.

Racism also helps explain why politicians and voters aren't more supportive of attempts to remedy inequalities. "Most of the poor kids tend to be black and Hispanic," Sciarra said. "There's an unwillingness among politicians to really commit themselves and all the resources it would require to educating those kids."

Finally, there's an element of racism in the often-voiced complaint that urban schools would just waste more money, while suburban schools know what to do with it. Robert Lowe, also of Rethinking Schools, points out the parallel between such beliefs and attitudes in the south around the turn of the century, when state governments openly gave a greater share of the school tax to white schools.

"A farmer was once asked if this was fair," Lowe said. "He replied, 'I suppose it is. The money does the most good in the white schools.' "

Obvious consequence

The most obvious consequence of disparities in educational funding is that large numbers of students are receiving an inferior education. Despite pockets of improvement, black and Hispanic scores on all standardized measures of achievement continue to lag behind whites. Poverty is the bottom-line explanation; family income, for example, remains the single most successful predictor of SAT scores.

"Achievement gaps are related to resource gaps in urban areas," said Fulton, the policy analyst. "These systems have less qualified teachers, crumbling buildings and can't afford the kind of textbooks and supplies routinely available in the suburbs."

In many ways, the American system contradicts common educational sense, which says that poor kids need more help, not less. The irony is that America is probably not saving any money by failing to provide a quality education for all children. Many observers believe that a number of the social problems facing the country are related, at least in part, to educational inequities.

"We're treating large numbers of urban and rural children as essentially surplus population," Karp said. "Educational injustice is giving rise to all sorts of dysfunctional behavior. In the cities, we have children growing up entirely divorced from our national economic life. How do we expect to wean young people away from crime and from racial mistrust under these conditions?"

Others contend that the cost of inequality can be measured on the basis of narrow self-interest. "Very few of us can earn a living through our muscle power anymore," said William Phillis of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, the group that filed the lawsuit that led to the recent Supreme Court ruling in Ohio. "Dropouts used to be able to find blue-collar jobs. Today, those jobs have been wiped out by technology. If we don't educate our people well -- all of our people -- we'll be wiped out by international competition. It's as simple as that."

While granting all of the above, Kozol argues that the most profound consequence of educational injustice may be more subjective. "There are so many things you can make up for later," he said. "But you can never atone for the theft of someone's childhood. You can't give them back fifth grade."

Kozol asks, "Shouldn't we provide them with something beautiful simply because they're children and we love them?"

On one level, the Catholic church has demonstrated a remarkable commitment to the education of America's poor and minority children. "The church has made a tremendous contribution by maintaining its schools in the inner city. They've educated the poor and minorities, and done an impressive job of it," Dolan said.

"It's one of our greatest charities," said Bishop Robert Banks of Green Bay, Wis., former head of the bishops' Committee on Education. It is also true that many individual Catholics, acting on the basis of their understanding of the gospel, have committed themselves to the cause of justice in public education.

To take but one example, the architect of the Abbott v. Burke case in New Jersey, which led to the supreme court of that state ordering a complete overhaul of the finance system, was Marilyn Morheuser. Morheuser, now deceased, had been a member of the Sisters of Loretto, and her community helped fund the Education Law Center, the group that filed the Abbott v. Burke suit.

At the institutional level, however, it is a different story. In the debate over the quality of public education America is prepared to offer its poor and minority children, the official leadership of the Catholic church has been missing in action.

The position of the American bishops on education, both public and private, is presented in their 1995 document Principles for Educational Reform. In it, the bishops lay out six principles, the last of which concerns resources. One item in a list of several subpoints reads, "Since children and parents do not surrender their rights to receive and choose an education because of their economic status, the equitable financing of education must be a primary goal of education policy at all levels. This will require a thorough review of all current education financing systems."

Thinking of vouchers

The use of the word choose suggests that the bishops were thinking of vouchers, which would give parents tax dollars to enroll their children in private schools. Nevertheless, it is also possible to construe this statement as a criticism of disadvantaging poor and minority children in spending on public education.

Has the statement led to any action on behalf of remedying these imbalances? "I'm not aware of any efforts," said Msgr. Thomas McDade, secretary of education for the U.S. Catholic Conference. "Perhaps we've spoken to it at the local level."

Bishop Banks, who served as chairman of the bishops' Committee on Education when the 1995 document was written, also suggested that while he was unaware of any national efforts, the local church had probably addressed the issue. "I presume that the local church will have something to say when there is a clear issue of justice with respect to the education of children," Banks said.

Unfortunately, the local church has been equally reticent. A survey of Catholic conferences in 10 states where the battle over educational justice has been the most acute, involving both litigation and political controversy, shows that not one has ever issued a position paper or made a public statement on behalf of a more equitable distribution of resources. Neither these state Catholic conferences nor the USCC has ever filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of a lawsuit seeking equity; the USCC did file, however, an enthusiastic brief, accompanied by a four-page news release, on behalf of Wisconsin's voucher program.

The states contacted were Arizona, California, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Wisconsin. The information was collected during the first two weeks of April. It's not that church leadership opposes fairness for poor and minority children. Indeed, when asked directly, they concede the present system is patently immoral.

"[Resource disparities] are absolutely a social justice issue," the USCC's McDade said. "It's fair to say that low-income students are not as well served by the system as it exists."

Bishop Banks said, "Every community has a responsibility to see that all children receive a good education. We have to find systems that lessen the disparity."

Beyond such responses to direct questions, however, the church has had virtually no involvement in the debate on either the national or the state level. Advocates involved in the struggle for educational justice report receiving no support from the church.

"The Catholic church has been largely silent" on equal funding for schools serving poor and minority populations, Wisconsin's Peterson said. "We didn't get any support from the Catholic community," said Ohio's Phillis. "Frankly, we were just relieved that we didn't get ambushed." "[The church] has been pretty much on the sidelines of this whole thing," said New Jersey's Sciarra. "They have not been supportive of our efforts to deal with this problem. They've been very, very quiet." These advocates concede that they never really asked the church for help. Still, it's also clear that the church has done nothing to volunteer it. How could the church stay out of what many educational experts regard as the burning social justice issue of the day? Dolan suggested that history may play a role.

"The public and Catholic school systems emerged around the same time, in the 1840s, and in the first generation there was an antagonistic environment," Dolan said. "The public schools were dominated by a Protestant ethos that wasn't very friendly to Catholics. It created a historical pattern that's still there, in which Catholics stay in their area, and the public school people stay in theirs."

"The church's attitude seems to be, 'We're doing our part through our own schools,' " Dolan said.

Aside from this de facto division of labor, the bishops also have their own set of educational priorities, and at the top of the list is public support for Catholic schools. The push for public dollars has become, in some ways, an obsession that distracts attention from other issues.

"We have a proprietary interest in our own school system, and that tends to consume most of our attention on education issues," Dolan said. "Church leaders and policy makers see the Catholic schools as one of the great triumphs of the church in this country. They see it as part of maintaining Catholic culture, passing it on," he said.

Bishop Banks of Wisconsin conceded the point with respect to his own involvement, saying, "I must admit that my primary concern [regarding education] has been vouchers, on the principle of equal treatment for children in Catholic and religious schools."

Again, Ohio provides a classic example of how the energies of the church leadership become narrowly focused on the needs of Catholic schools. Carolyn Jurkowitz of the Catholic Conference of Ohio confirmed that the church took no position on the DeRolph v. Ohio litigation or on any of the subsequent political fallout. "It hasn't been discussed among the staff," she said. By way of contrast, the Catholic lobby in Ohio is widely credited with having been instrumental in passage of that state's vouchers program, the only one in the nation to presently include Catholic schools.

In addition, when the legislature recently considered rolling $4 million in surplus funds in a program for private schools into the public school budget, Rep. Tom Johnson, Republican chair of the House Finance Committee, said he received a call from every one of the Catholic schools in his district demanding that the money be retained exclusively for private schools. It was. Aside from this sort of obvious self-interest, Dolan also said that the Catholic leadership has sometimes been discouraged from becoming involved in public education.

Matter of justice

"There's also the fear of being perceived as meddlers, interested in public schools because of some hidden agenda. Church leaders who have tried to speak to the issue have sometimes had their hands slapped, told to stay out of an issue that isn't theirs," he said. Dolan added that this resistance to Catholic involvement would diminish if church leaders spoke more forcefully to the need for educational justice for all, not just those who attend or desire to attend Catholic schools.

Whatever the reasons for the official silence, Catholics close to the education issue agree that the church must be more outspoken. For one thing, there's a pastoral responsibility involved. "Most Catholic children are actually in the public schools," said Dr. Lawrence Bowman, director of Catholic education for the Covington, Ky., diocese. Of the nation's approximately 43 million students, only 2.6 million currently attend Catholic schools K-12, and many of those students are not Catholic. The National Catholic Educational Association estimates, further, that Catholic schools might be able to add only five percent or 130,000 to its current student population.

"Just from a pastoral point of view, we need to speak in favor of a strong, equitable public system," Bowman said.

Others couch the argument for Catholic involvement in broader moral terms. "This is a clear moral issue. Even the defenders of the present system concede that. In Ohio, the superintendent of public instruction admitted under oath that the present system is immoral," Phillis said. "If Catholics believe in the dignity of all children, if Catholics believe in the sanctity of life, then the church must call on society to do what it can to enhance the quality of life for all people."

John Coleman, professor of religion and society at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., said, "The church must be committed to the common good. The church can be self-interested, and I think part of what's going on is that people are acting out of self-interest without having thought through the civic implications of their position. What does it say about us as a people if we give up on equal educational opportunity, on the notion of the common school? We have to speak to that."

What could the Catholic church contribute to the debate?

"First, the Catholic church could help evangelize the suburbs, awakening the consciences of people to the need to take care of all children," Peterson said. "Second, it could act as a voice for impoverished areas, advocating the cause of educational justice.

"Right now the only groups with a national presence making the case for justice in public education are the teachers' unions," Peterson said. "It's too easy to dismiss that as self-interest. There's a tremendous need for someone else to press the argument."

Karp agreed that religious groups such as the Catholic church are in a unique position to raise the moral dimension of the debate. "This is everyone's issue, and certainly support from the religious sector could be crucial. Perhaps religious leaders could challenge the racism and the selfishness that's central to the present system," he said. Advocates such as Peterson and Karp are eager for help because, like many others close to the issue, they believe that much of the social trauma tearing through American life has its origins in failure to provide meaningful educational opportunities to so many people.

In an often quoted remark, education pioneer John Dewey once said, "What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy." Anyone who spends some time in the "narrow, unlovely" schools that are the legacy of America's system of apartheid education understands what Dewey meant. It's not difficult to see why the children warehoused in these schools feel they have little stake in our democracy.

In such a situation, as the interviews show, individuals in the church find it easy to agree that America needs voices crying out to make the case for change. The question facing the institutional church is, will it be one of those voices?

National Catholic Reporter, May 2, 1997