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Saving American education means not funding public schools on local bases

By James Pinkerton - posted Monday, 8 September 2003

In 1983 a federal education commission warned that "a rising tide of mediocrity" threatened the well-being of the republic. That tide has not ebbed. Nearly two decades later, in 2000, the Program for International Student Assessment found that American 15-year-olds ranked 14th in science literacy and eighteenth in mathematics literacy among the 32 countries administering the test, scoring below the average for developed countries in both categories. And although President George W. Bush and Congress recently united behind the grandiosely titled No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, few observers outside Washington, D.C., believe that the legislation will have anything more than a marginal effect on student performance.

All Presidents claim to be "education Presidents," but the schools drift along, up a bit, down a bit, always costing more money but never making the sort of dramatic gains witnessed elsewhere in American life. Why should this be?

U.S. schools today are the product of three different educational eras: the agricultural (which produced the nine-month school year), the industrial (which emphasized rote learning and regimentation to fit the rhythms of mass production), and what might be called the experimental (which promoted a range of nostrums, from sex education to Whole Language, often at the expense of basic skills). Each of these has left its own layer of sediment to muck things up in the present. The worst legacy of the past, however, is localized school funding, which not only produces great regional inequalities in spending per pupil but also nurtures the persistent incompetence of many schools.


Today about 45 per cent of school funding comes from local sources, such as property taxes. In Virginia, for example, average per-pupil spending in rural Hanover County is only half that in suburban Arlington County. In New Jersey, which has been struggling to equalize school funding for three decades, the schools in Elizabeth spend 70 per cent more per pupil than do the schools in Toms River.

Beyond state lines the disparities grow even worse: among school districts with enrollments of 15,000 or more, spending ranges from $3,932 per pupil in DeSoto County, Mississippi, to $14,244 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Rectifying such imbalances requires a national solution.

"Most of the resource inequality cannot be resolved at the state level," David Grissmer and Ann Flanagan, analysts for the Rand Corporation, have written. "States spending the least are southern and western states that also have a disproportionate share of the nation's minority and disadvantaged students."

Yet the federal government does little to address this systemic inequality, and continues to contribute only about seven per cent of the total spent on elementary and secondary schools.

So what's an "education President" to do? Happily, the means of reforming elementary and secondary education does not lie in some obscure theory, or in some other country. It has been right in front of our eyes for decades: the model of the Pell Grant program.

Colleges and universities compete, in effect, in a single national market. The federal government pumps $10 billion a year into college education through Pell Grants. The GI Bill and other aid programs add billions more. Pell Grants have an inherently equalizing effect on per-student funding: every qualifying student in the country has access to the same amount-a maximum of $4,000 a year-and can spend it at the accredited college of his or her choice. Thus much of higher education is more equitably funded than K-12 education. Moreover, because Pell recipients decide where their grants are applied, the program is driven by students, not administrators.


Why not build on the Pell model, and apply it to elementary and secondary education? Total K-12 public school spending, for some 47 million students, is currently about $350 billion a year, slightly more than $7,000 per pupil per year. Expanding on the Pell model would mean giving every American elementary and secondary school student $7,000 to spend at the school of his or her choice. Unlike Pell Grants, this money would be given to all students, regardless of the level of need. This would create, in effect, a grand compromise between left and right, guaranteeing more-equal funding (which the left wants) and more choice for students (which the right wants).

Making this happen, of course, would require a radical reshuffling of financial responsibilities among the various levels of government. But such a reshuffling is not unprecedented; after all, though states and localities once bore the cost of raising militias, national defense is now a federal responsibility. Since 9/11, of course, federal responsibility for homeland defense has increased, to the point where a new Cabinet department has been legislated.

Education is no less a national priority than defense. Education reformers should not shrink from the full implications of their goals; it's time for the federal government to do more for education - and for state and local governments to do less. It is true that the $350 billion a year in spending that the federal government would have to take on from state and local governments is no small amount. But at three per cent of GDP, it is less than the annual U.S. military budget, and less than what the federal government spends on health care each year. And because state and local governments would be able either to spend the money currently allotted to education on other priorities or to rebate money to taxpayers, any federal tax increases or spending cuts made to accommodate this new system would be at least partially offset.

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This article was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in January 2003.

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About the Author

James Pinkerton is a Fellow at the New America Foundation.

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