When low-income districts go to court to challenge the existing system of school funding, writes John Coons, the natural fear of the conservative is “that the levelers are at work here sapping the foundations of free enterprise.”
In reality, he says, there is “no graver threat to the capitalist system than the present cyclical replacement of the ‘fittest’ of one generation by their artificially advantaged offspring. Worse, when that advantage is proffered to the children of the successful by the state, we can be sure that free enterprise has sold its birthright.… To defend the present public school finance system on a platform of economic or political freedom is no less absurd than to describe it as egalitarian. In the name of all the values of free enterprise, the existing system [is] a scandal.”
There is something incongruous, he goes on, about “a differential of any magnitude” between the education of two children, “the sole justification for which is an imaginary school district line” between those children. The reliance of our public schools on property taxes and the localization of the uses of those taxes “have combined to make the public school into an educator for the educated rich and a keeper for the uneducated poor. There exists no more powerful force for rigidity of social class and the frustration of natural potential.…”
The freedom claimed by a rich man, he says, “to give his child a preferential education, and thereby achieve the transmission of advantage by inheritance, denies the children of others the freedom inherent in the notion of free enterprise.” Democracy “can stand certain kinds and amounts” of inherited advantage. “What democracy cannot tolerate is an aristocracy padded and protected by the state itself from competition from below.…” In a free enterprise society, he writes, “differential provision by the public school marks the intrusion [of] heresy, for it means that certain participants in the economic race are hobbled at the gate—and hobbled by the public handicapper.”
According to our textbook rhetoric, Americans abhor the notion of a social order in which economic privilege and political power are determined by hereditary class. Officially, we have a more enlightened goal in sight: namely, a society in which a family’s wealth has no relation to the probability of future educational attainment and the wealth and station it affords. By this standard, education offered to poor children should be at least as good as that which is provided to the children of the upper-middle class.
If Americans had to discriminate directly against other people’s children, I believe most citizens would find this morally abhorrent. Denial, in an active sense, of other people’s children is, however, rarely necessary in this nation. Inequality is mediated for us by a taxing system that most people do not fully understand and seldom scrutinize. How this system really works, and how it came into existence, may enable us to better understand the difficulties that will be confronted in attempting to revise it.
The basic formula in place today for education finance is described as a “foundation program.” First introduced during the early 1920s, the formula attempts to reconcile the right of local districts to support and govern their own schools with the obligation of the state to lessen the extremes of educational provision between districts. The former concern derives from the respect for liberty—which is defined, in this case, as the freedom of the district to provide for its own youth—and from the belief that more efficiency is possible when the control of local schools is held by those who have the greatest stake in their success. The latter concern derives from the respect for equal opportunity for all schoolchildren, regardless of their parents’ poverty or wealth.
The foundation program, in its pure form, operates somewhat like this: (1) A local tax upon the value of the homes and businesses within a given district raises the initial funds required for the operations of the public schools. (2) In the wealthiest districts, this is frequently enough to operate an adequate school system. Less affluent districts levy a tax at the same rate as the richest district—which assures that the tax burden on all citizens is equally apportioned—but, because the property is worth less in a poor community, the revenues derived will be inadequate to operate a system on the level of the richest district. (3) The state will then provide sufficient funds to lift the poorer districts to a level (“the foundation”) roughly equal to that of the richest district.
If this formula were strictly followed, something close to revenue equality would be achieved. It would still not satisfy the greater needs of certain districts, which for instance may have greater numbers of retarded, handicapped, or Spanish-speaking children. It would succeed in treating districts, but not children, equally. But even this degree of equal funding has not often been achieved.
The sticking point has been the third and final point listed above: what is described as the “foundation.” Instead of setting the foundation at the level of the richest district, the states more frequently adopt what has been called “a low foundation.” The low foundation is a level of subsistence that will raise a district to a point at which its schools are able to provide a “minimum” or “basic” education, but not an education on the level found in the rich districts. The notion of a “minimum” (rather than a “full”) foundation represents a very special definition of the idea of equality. It guarantees that every child has “an equal minimum” but not that every child has the same. Stated in a slightly different way, it guarantees that every child has a building called “a school” but not that what is found within one school will bear much similarity, if any, to that which is found within another.
The decision as to what may represent a reasonable “minimum” (the term “sufficient” often is employed) is, of course, determined by the state officials. Because of the dynamics of state politics, this determination is in large part shaped by what the richer districts judge to be “sufficient” for the poorer; and this, in turn, leads to the all-important question: “sufficient” for what purpose? If the necessary outcome of the education of a child of low income is believed to be the capability to enter into equal competition with the children of the rich, then the foundation level has to be extremely high. If the necessary outcome is, however, only the capacity to hold some sort of job—perhaps a job as an employee of the person who was born in a rich district—then the foundation could be very “minimal” indeed. The latter, in effect, has been the resolution of this question.
This is not the only factor that has fostered inequality, however. In order to win backing from the wealthy districts for an equalizing plan of any kind, no matter how inadequate, legislatures offer the rich districts an incentive. The incentive is to grant some portion of state aid to all school districts, regardless of their poverty or wealth. While less state aid is naturally expected to be given to the wealthy than the poor, the notion of giving something to all districts is believed to be a “sweetener” that will assure a broad enough electoral appeal to raise the necessary funds through statewide taxes. As we have seen in several states, however, these “sweeteners” have been so sweet that they sometimes ended up by deepening the preexisting inequalities.
All this leads us to the point, acknowledged often by school-finance specialists but largely unknown to the public, that the various “formulas” conceived—and reconceived each time there is a legal challenge—to achieve some equity in public education have been almost total failures. In speaking of the equalizing formula in Massachusetts, for example, the historian Joel Weinberg makes this candid observation: “The state could actually have done as well if it had made no attempt to relate its support system to local ability [i.e., local wealth] and distributed its ‘largesse’ in a completely random fashion”—as, for example, “by the State Treasurer throwing checks from an airplane and allowing the vagaries of the elements to distribute them among the different communities.” But even this description of a “random” distribution may be generous. If the wind had been distributing state money in New Jersey, for example, it might have left most disparities unchanged, but it would not likely have increased disparities consistently for 20 years, which is what the state formula has done without exception.
The contest between liberty and equity in education has, in the past 30 years, translated into the competing claims of local control, on the one hand, and state (or federal) intervention on the other. Liberty, school conservatives have argued, is diminished when the local powers of school districts have been sacrificed to centralized control. The opposition to desegregation in the South, for instance, was portrayed as local (states’) rights as a sacred principle infringed upon by federal court decisions. The opposition to the drive for equal funding in a given state is now portrayed as local (district) rights in opposition to the powers of the state. While local control may be defended and supported on a number of important grounds, it is unmistakable that it has been historically advanced to counter equity demands; this is no less the case today.
As we have seen, the recent drive for “schools of excellence” (or “schools of choice”) within a given district carries this historic conflict one step further. The evolution of a dual or tripartite system in a single district, as we have observed in New York City and Chicago, has counterposed the “freedom” of some parents to create some enclaves of selective excellence for their own children against the claims of equity made on behalf of all the children who have been excluded from these favored schools. At every level of debate, whether it is states’ rights versus federal intervention, local district versus state control, or local school versus the district school board, the argument is made that more efficiency accrues from local governance and that equity concerns enforced by centralized authority inevitably lead to waste and often to corruption. Thus, “efficiency” joins “liberty” as a rhetorical rebuttal to the claims of equal opportunity and equal funding. “Local control” is the sacred principle in all these arguments.
Ironically, however, as we saw in the New Jersey situation, “local control” is readily ignored when state officials are dissatisfied with local leadership. A standard reaction of state governors, when faced with what they judge to be ineptitude at local levels, is to call for less—and not more—local governance by asking for a state takeover of the failing district. The liberty of local districts, thus, is willingly infringed on grounds of inefficiency. It is only when equal funding is the issue that the sanctity of district borders becomes absolute.
But this is not the only way in which the states subvert local control. They do it also by prescription of state guidelines that establish uniform curricula for all school districts, by certifying teachers on a statewide basis, and—in certain states like Texas, for example—by adopting textbooks on a statewide basis. During the past decade, there have also been conservative demands for national controls—a national teachers’ examination, for example, and a national examination for all students—and we have been told that the commanding reason for these national controls is an alleged decline in national competitiveness against Japan and other foreign nations: a matter that transcends the needs or wishes of a local state or district. The national report that launched the recent “excellence” agenda bore the title “A Nation at Risk.” It did not speak of East St. Louis, New York City or Winnetka. Testing of pupils is, in a sense, already national. Reading scores are measured “at,” “above,” or else “below” a national norm. Children, whether in Little Rock, Great Neck, or the Bronx, compete with all American children when they take the college-entrance tests. Teacher preparation is already standardized across the nation. Textbooks, even before the states began adoptions, were homogenized for national consumption. With the advent of TV instruction via satellite, national education will be even more consistent and, in large part, uncontested.
Then too, of course, the flag in every classroom is the same. Children do not pledge allegiance to the flag of Nashua, New Hampshire, or to that of Fargo, North Dakota. The words of the pledge are very clear: They pledge allegiance to “one nation indivisible” and, in view of what we’ve seen of the implacable divisions that exist and are so skillfully maintained, there is some irony in this. The nation is hardly “indivisible” where education is concerned. It is at least two nations, quite methodically divided, with a fair amount of liberty for some, no liberty that justifies the word for many others, and justice—in the sense of playing on a nearly even field—only for the kids whose parents can afford to purchase it.
We may ask again, therefore, what “local governance” in fact implies in public education. The local board does not control the manufacture of the textbooks that its students use. It does not govern teacher preparation or certification. It does not govern political allegiance. It does not govern the exams that measure math and reading. It does not govern the exams that will determine or prohibit university admissions. It does not even really govern architecture. With few exceptions, elementary schools constructed prior to ten years ago are uniform boxes parted by a corridor with six rooms to the left, six to the right, and maybe 12 or 24 more classrooms in the same configuration on the floor or floors above.
What the local school board does determine is how clean those floors will be; how well the principal and teachers will be paid; whether the classrooms will be adequately heated; whether a class of 18 children will have 18 textbooks or whether, as in some cities we have seen, a class of 30 children will be asked to share the use of 15 books; whether the library is stocked with up-to-date encyclopedias, computers, novels, poetry, and dictionaries or whether it’s used instead for makeshift classrooms, as in New York City; whether the auditorium is well equipped for real theatrical productions or whether, as in Irvington, it must be used instead to house 11 classes; whether the gymnasium is suitable for indoor games or whether it is used for reading classes; whether the playground is equipped with jungle gyms and has green lawns for soccer games and baseball or whether it is a bleak expanse of asphalt studded with cracked glass.
If the school board has sufficient money, it can exercise some real control over these matters. If it has very little money, it has almost no control; or rather it has only negative control. Its freedom is to choose which of the children’s needs should be denied. This negative authority is all that local governance in fact implies in places such as Camden and Detroit. It may be masked by the apparent power to advance one kind of “teaching style,” one “approach,” or one “philosophy” over another. But, where the long-standing problems are more basic (adequate space, sufficient teachers for all classrooms, heating fuel, repair of missing windowpanes and leaking roofs and toilet doors), none of the pretended power over tone and style has much meaning. Style, in the long run, is determined by the caliber and character of teachers, and this is an area in which the poorest schools have no real choice at all.
Stephen Lefelt, the judge who tried the legal challenge in New Jersey, concluded from the months of testimony he had heard, that “local control,” as it is presently interpreted to justify financial inequality, denies poor districts all control over the things that matter most in education. So, in this respect, the age-old conflict between liberty and equity is largely nonexistent in this setting. The wealthy districts have the first and seldom think about the second, while the very poor have neither.
In surveying the continuing tensions that exist between the claims of local liberty and those of equity in public education, historians have noted three distinguishable trends within this century. From the turn of the century until the 1950s, equity concerns were muted and the courts did not intrude much upon local governance. From 1954 (the year in which Brown v. Board of Education was decided) up to the early 1970s, equity concerns were more pronounced, although the emphasis was less on economic than on racial factors. From the early 1970s to the present, local control and the efficiency agenda have once again prevailed. The decisive date that scholars generally pinpoint as the start of the most recent era is March 21 of 1973: the day on which the high court overruled the judgment of a district court in Texas that had found the local funding scheme unconstitutional—and in this way halted in its tracks the drive to equalize the public education system through the federal courts.
We have referred to the Texas case above. It is time now to examine it in detail.
A class-action suit had been filed in 1968 by a resident of San Antonio named Demetrio Rodriguez and by other parents on behalf of their own children, who were students in the city’s Edgewood district, which was very poor and 96 percent nonwhite. Although Edgewood residents paid one of the highest tax rates in the area, the district could raise only $37 for each pupil. Even with the “minimum” provided by the state, Edgewood ended up with only $231 for each child. Alamo Heights, meanwhile, the richest section of the city but incorporated as a separate schooling district, was able to raise $412 for each student from a lower tax rate and, because it also got state aid (and federal aid), was able to spend $543 on each pupil. Alamo Heights, then as now, was a predominantly white district.*
The difference between spending levels in these districts was, moreover, not the widest differential to be found in Texas. A sample of 110 Texas districts at the time showed that the ten wealthiest districts spent an average of three times as much per pupil as the four poorest districts, even with the funds provided under the state’s “equalizing” formula.
Late in 1971, a three-judge federal district court in San Antonio held that Texas was in violation of the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. “Any mild equalizing effects” from state aid, said the court, “do not benefit the poorest districts.”
It is this decision which was then appealed to the Supreme Court. The majority opinion of the high court, which reversed the lower court’s decision, noted that, in order to bring to bear “strict scrutiny” upon the case, it must first establish that there had been “absolute deprivation” of a “fundamental interest” of the Edgewood children. Justice Lewis Powell wrote that education is not “a fundamental interest” inasmuch as education “is not among, the rights afforded explicit protection under our Federal Constitution.” Nor, he wrote, did he believe that “absolute deprivation” was at stake. “The argument here,” he said, “is not that the children in districts having relatively low assessable property values are receiving no public education; rather, it is that they are receiving a poorer quality education than that available to children in districts having more assessable wealth.” In cases where wealth is involved, he said, “the Equal Protection Clause does not require absolute equality.…”
Attorneys for Rodriguez and the other plaintiffs, Powell wrote, argue “that education is itself a fundamental personal right because it is essential to the exercise of First Amendment freedoms and to intelligent use of the right to vote. [They argue also] that the right to speak is meaningless unless the speaker is capable of articulating his thoughts intelligently and persuasively.… [A] similar line of reasoning is pursued with respect to the right to vote.
“Yet we have never presumed to possess either the ability or the authority to guarantee … the most effective speech or the most informed electoral choice.” Even if it were conceded, he wrote, that “some identifiable quantum of education” is a prerequisite to exercise of speech and voting rights, “we have no indication … that the [Texas funding] system fails to provide each child with an opportunity to acquire the basic minimal skills necessary” to enjoy a “full participation in the political process.”
This passage raised, of course, some elemental questions. The crucial question centered on the two words “minimal” and “necessary.” In the words of O. Z. White of Trinity University in San Antonio: “We would always want to know by what criteria these terms had been defined. For example, any poor Hispanic child who could spell three-letter words, add and subtract, and memorize the names and dates of several presidents would have been viewed as having been endowed with ‘minimal’ skills in much of Texas 50 years ago. How do we update those standards? This cannot be done without the introduction of subjective notions as to what is needed in the present age. Again, when Powell speaks of what is ‘necessary’ to enjoy what he calls ‘full participation’ in the nation’s politics, we would want to know exactly what he has in mind by ‘full’ participation. A lot of wealthy folks in Texas think the schools are doing a sufficiently good job if the kids of poor folks learn enough to cast a vote—just not enough to cast it in their own self-interest. They might think it fine if kids could write and speak—just not enough to speak in ways that make a dent in public policy. In economic terms, a lot of folks in Alamo Heights would think that Edgewood kids were educated fine if they had all the necessary skills to do their kitchen work and tend their lawns. How does Justice Powell settle on the level of effectiveness he has in mind by ‘full participation’? The definition of this term is at the essence of democracy. If pegged too low, it guarantees perpetuation of disparities of power while still presenting an illusion of fair play. Justice Powell is a human being and his decision here is bound to be subjective. When he tells us that the Edgewood kids are getting all that’s ‘full’ or ‘necessary,’ he is looking at the world from Alamo Heights. This, I guess, is only natural. If he had a home here, that is where he’d likely live.
“To a real degree, what is considered ‘adequate’ or ‘necessary’ or ‘sufficient’ for the poor in Texas is determined by the rich or relatively rich; it is decided in accord with their opinion of what children of the poor are fitted to become, and what their social role should be. This role has always been equated with their usefulness to us; and this consideration seems to be at stake in almost all reflections on the matter of the ‘minimal’ foundation offered to schoolchildren, which, in a sense, is only a metaphor for ‘minimal’ existence. When Justice Powell speaks of ‘minimal’ skills, such as the capacity to speak, but argues that we have no obligation to assure that it will be the ‘most effective’ speech, he is saying something that may seem quite reasonable and even commonplace, but it is something that would make more sense to wealthy folks in Alamo than to the folks in Edgewood.”
Powell, however, placed great emphasis on his distinction between “basic minimal” skills, permitting some participation, and no skills at all, which might deny a person all participation; and he seemed to acquiesce in the idea that some inequity would always be inevitable. “No scheme of taxation …,” he wrote, “has yet been devised which is free of all discriminatory impact.”
In any case, said Justice Powell in a passage that anticipates much of the debate now taking place, “experts are divided” on the question of the role of money in determining the quality of education. Indeed, he said, “one of the hottest sources of controversy concerns the extent to which there is a demonstrable correlation between educational expenditures and the quality of education.”
In an additional comment that would stir considerable reaction among Texas residents, Powell said the district court had been in error in deciding that the Texas funding system had created what is called “a suspect class”—that is to say, an identifiable class of unjustly treated people. There had been no proof, he said, that a poor district such as Edgewood was necessarily inhabited mainly or entirely by poor people and, for this reason, it could not be said that poverty was the real cause of deprivation, even if there was real deprivation. There is, said Powell, “no basis … for assuming that the poorest people … are concentrated in the poorest districts.” Nor, he added, is there “more than a random chance that racial minorities are concentrated” in such districts.
Justice Thurgood Marshall, in his long dissent, challenged the notion that an interest, to be seen as “fundamental,” had to be “explicitly or implicity guaranteed” within the Constitution. Thus, he said, although the right to procreate, the right to vote, the right to criminal appeal are not guaranteed, “these interests have nonetheless been afforded special judicial consideration … because they are, to some extent, interrelated with constitutional guarantees.” Education, Marshall said, was also such a “related interest” because it “directly affects the ability of a child to exercise his First Amendment interests both as a source and as a receiver of information and ideas.… [Of] particular importance is the relationship between education and the political process.”
Marshall also addressed the argument of Justice Powell that there was no demonstrated “correlation between poor people and poor districts.” In support of this conclusion, Marshall wrote, the majority “offers absolutely no data—which it cannot on this record.…” Even, however, if it were true, he added, that all individuals within poor districts are not poor, the injury to those who are poor would not be diminished. Nor, he went on, can we ignore the extent to which state policies contribute to wealth differences. Government zoning regulations, for example, “have undoubtedly encouraged and rigidified national trends” that raise the property values in some districts while debasing them in others.
Marshall also challenged the distinction, made by Justice Powell, between “absolute” and “relative” degrees of deprivation, as well as Powell’s judgment that the Texas funding scheme, because it had increased the funds available to local districts, now provided children of low income with the “minimum” required. “The Equal Protection Clause is not addressed to … minimal sufficiency,” said Marshall, but to equity; and he cited the words of Brown to the effect that education, “where the State has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”
On Justice Powell’s observation that some experts questioned the connection between spending and the quality of education, Marshall answered almost with derision: “Even an unadorned restatement of this contention is sufficient to reveal its absurdity.” It is, he said, “an inescapable fact that if one district has more funds available per pupil than another district,” it “will have greater choice” in what it offers to its children. If, he added, “financing variations are so insignificant” to quality, “it is difficult to understand why a number of our country’s wealthiest school districts,” which, he noted, had no obligation to support the Texas funding scheme, had “nevertheless zealously pursued its cause before this Court”—a reference to the amicus briefs that Bloomfield Hills, Grosse Pointe and Beverly Hills had introduced in their support of the defendants.
On the matter of local control, Marshall said this: “I need not now decide how I might ultimately strike the balance were we confronted with a situation where the State’s sincere concern for local control inevitably produced educational inequality. For, on this record, it is apparent that the State’s purported concern with local control is offered primarily as an excuse rather than as a justification for interdistrict inequality.… [If] Texas had a system truly dedicated to local fiscal control one would expect the quality of the educational opportunity provided in each district to vary with the decision of the voters in that district as to the level of sacrifice they wish to make for public education. In fact, the Texas scheme produces precisely the opposite result.” Local districts, he observed, cannot “choose to have the best education in the State” because the education offered by a district is determined by its wealth—“a factor over which local voters [have] no control.”
If, for the sake of local control, he concluded, “this court is to sustain interdistrict discrimination in the educational opportunity afforded Texas schoolchildren, it should require that the State present something more than the mere sham now before us.…”
Nonetheless, the court’s majority turned down the suit and in a single word—“reversed”—Justice Powell ended any expectations that the children of the Edgewood schools would now be given the same opportunities as children in the richer districts. In tandem with the Milliken decision two years later, which exempted white suburban districts from participating in desegregation programs with the cities, the five-to-four decision in Rodriguez ushered in the ending of an era of progressive change and set the tone for the subsequent two decades which have left us with the present-day reality of separate and unequal public schools.
Unlike the U.S. Constitution, almost all state constitutions are specific in their references to public education. Since the decision in the Texas case, therefore, the parents of poor children have been centering their legal efforts on the various state courts, and there have been several local victories of sorts. In the absence of a sense of national imperative, however, and lacking the unusual authority of the Supreme Court, or the Congress, or the president, local victories have tended to deliver little satisfaction to poor districts. Even favorable decisions have led frequently to lengthy exercises of obstruction in the legislative process, eventuating often in a rearrangement of the old state “formula” that merely reconstructs the old inequities.
There is another way, however, in which legal victories have been devalued by the states, and this is seen most vividly in California. Even before the Texas case had been reversed, parents from Southern California had brought suit in the state courts, alleging that the funding system was unconstitutional because of the wide differential between funding for the children of the rich and poor. At the time of the trial, for example, Baldwin Park, a low-income city near Los Angeles, was spending $595 for each student while Beverly Hills was able to spend $1,244, even though the latter district had a tax rate less than half that of the former. Similar inequities were noted elsewhere in the state.
The court’s decision found the California scheme a violation of both state and federal constitutions. For this reason, it was not affected by the later finding in the Texas case. In 1974 a second court decision ordered the state legislature to come up with a different system of school funding. A new system was at last enacted in the spring of 1977. As soon as Californians understood the implications of the plan—namely, that funding for most of their public schools would henceforth be approximately equal—a conservative revolt surged through the state. The outcome of this surge, the first of many tax revolts across the nation in the next ten years, was a referendum that applied a “cap” on taxing and effectively restricted funding for all districts. Proposition 13, as the tax cap would be known, may be interpreted in several ways. One interpretation was described succinctly by a California legislator: “This is the revenge of wealth against the poor. ‘If the schools must actually be equal,’ they are saying, ‘then we’ll undercut them all.’ ”
It is more complex than that, but there is an element of truth in this assessment and there is historic precedent as well. Two decades earlier, as U.S. Commissioner of Education Francis Keppel had observed, voters responded to desegregation orders in the South by much the same approach. “Throughout much of the rural South,” he wrote, “desegregation was accompanied by lowering the tax base for [the] public schools [while] granting local and state tax exemptions for [a parallel system of private white] academies.…”
Today, in all but 5 percent of California districts, funding levels are within $300 of each other. Although, in this respect, the plaintiffs won the equity they sought, it is to some extent a victory of losers. Though the state ranks eighth in per capita income in the nation, the share of its income that now goes to public education is a meager 3.8 percent—placing California forty-sixth among the 50 states. Its average class size is the largest in the nation.
These developments in California, which may soon be replicated in some other states as local courts begin to call for equitable funding of the schools, tell us much about the value we assign to “excellence.” If excellence must be distributed in equitable ways, it seems, Americans may be disposed to vote for mediocrity.
Meanwhile, for the children of the rich and very rich in California, there is still an open door to privileged advancement. In the affluent school districts, tax-exempt foundations have been formed to channel extra money into local schools. Afternoon “Super Schools” have been created also in these districts to provide the local children with tutorials and private lessons. And 5 percent of California’s public schools remain outside the “spread” ($300) that exists between the other districts in official funding. The consequence is easily discerned by visitors. Beverly Hills still operates a high school that, in academic excellence, can rival those of Princeton and Winnetka. Baldwin Park still operates a poorly funded and inferior system. In Northern California, Oakland remains a mainly nonwhite, poor and troubled system while the schools that serve the Piedmont district, separately incorporated though it is surrounded on four sides by Oakland, remains richly funded, white, and excellent. The range of district funding in the state is still extremely large: The poorest districts spend less than $3,000 while the wealthiest spend more than $7,000.
For those of the affluent who so desire, there are also private schools; and because the tax cap leaves them with more money, wealthy parents have these extra funds available to pay for private school tuition—a parallel, in certain ways, to the developments that Keppel outlined in the South after the Brown decision.
The lesson of California is that equity in education represents a formidable threat to other values held by many affluent Americans. It will be resisted just as bitterly as school desegregation. Nor is it clear that even an affirmative decision of the high court, if another case should someday reach that level, would be any more effective than the California ruling in addressing something so profoundly rooted in American ideas about the right and moral worth of individual advancement at whatever cost to others who may be less favored by the accident of birth.
Despite the evidence, suburbanites sometimes persist in asking what appears at first a reasonable question: “So long as every child has a guarantee of education, what harm can it really be to let us spend a little more? Isn’t this a very basic kind of freedom? And is it fair to tell us that wecannot spend some extra money if we have it?”
This sentiment is so deeply held that even advocates for equity tend to capitulate at this point. Often they will reassure the suburbs: “We don’t want to take away the good things that you have. We just want to lift the poorer schools a little higher.” Political accommodation, rather than conviction, dictates this approach because, of course, it begs the question: Since every district is competing for the same restricted pool of gifted teachers, the “minimum” assured to every district is immediately devalued by the district that can add $10,000 more to teacher salaries. Then, too, once the richest districts go above the minimum, school suppliers, textbook publishers, computer manufacturers adjust their price horizons—just as teachers raise their salary horizons—and the poorest districts are left where they were before the minimum existed.
Attorneys in school-equalization suits have done their best to understate the notion of “redistribution” of resources. They try instead, wherever possible, to speak in terms that seem to offer something good for everyone involved. But this is a public relations approach that blurs the real dynamics of a transfer of resources. No matter what devices are contrived to bring about equality, it is clear that they require money-transfer, and the largest source of money is the portion of the population that possesses the most money. When wealthy districts indicate they see the hand of Robin Hood in this, they are clear-sighted and correct. This is surely why resistance to these suits, and even to court orders, has been so intense and so ingeniously prolonged. For, while, on a lofty level, wealthy districts may be fighting in defense of a superb abstraction—“liberty,” “local control,” or such—on a mundane level they are fighting for the right to guarantee their children the inheritance of an ascendant role in our society.
There is a deep-seated reverence for fair play in the United States, and in many areas of life we see the consequences in a genuine distaste for loaded dice; but this is not the case in education, health care, or inheritance of wealth. In these elemental areas we want the game to be unfair and we have made it so; and it will likely so remain.
Let us return, then, for a final time to San Antonio—not to the city of 1968, when the Rodriguez case was filed, but to the city of today. It is 23 years now since Demetrio Rodriguez went to court. Things have not changed very much in the poor neighborhoods of Texas. After 23 years of court disputes and numerous state formula revisions, per-pupil spending ranges from $2,000 in the poorest districts to some $19,000 in the richest. The minimum foundation that the state allows the children in the poorest districts—that is to say, the funds that guarantee the minimal basic education—is $1,477. Texas, moreover, is one of the ten states that gives no financial aid for school construction to the local districts.
In San Antonio, where Demetrio Rodriguez brought his suit against the state in 1968, the children of the poor still go to separate and unequal schools.
“The poor live by the water ditches here,” said O. Z. White as we were driving through the crowded streets on a hot day in 1989. “The water is stagnant in the ditches now but, when the rains come, it will rise quite fast—it flows south into the San Antonio River.…
“The rich live on the high ground to the north. The higher ground in San Antonio is Monte Vista. But the very rich—the families with old money—live in the section known as Alamo Heights.”
Alamo Heights, he told me, is a part of San Antonio. “It’s enclosed by San Antonio but operated as a separate system. Dallas has a similar white enclave known as Highland Park, enclosed on four sides by the Dallas schools but operated as a separate district. We call these places ‘parasite districts’ since they give no tax support to the low-income sections.
“Alamo Heights is like a different world. The air is fresher. The grass is greener. The homes are larger. And the schools are richer.”
Seven minutes from Alamo Heights, at the corner of Hamilton and Guadalupe, is Cassiano—a low-income housing project. Across the street from Cassiano, tiny buildings resembling shacks, some of them painted pastel shades, house many of the children who attend the Cooper Middle School, where 96 percent of children qualify by poverty for subsidized hot lunches and where 99.3 percent are of Hispanic origin. At Cooper, $2,800 is devoted to each child’s education and 72 percent of children read below grade level. Class size ranges from 28 to 30. Average teacher salary is $27,000.
In Alamo Heights, where teachers average $31,000, virtually all students graduate and 88 percent of graduates go on to college. Classes are small and $4,600 is expended yearly on each child.
Fully 10 percent of children at the Cooper Middle School drop out in seventh and eighth grades. Of the survivors, 51 percent drop out of high school.
In 1988, Alamo Heights spent an average of $46 per pupil for its “gifted” program. The San Antonio Independent District, which includes the Cooper Middle School, spent only $2 for each child for its “gifted” program. In the Edgewood District, only $1 was spent per child for the “gifted” program.
Although the property tax in Alamo Heights yielded $3,600 for each pupil, compared to $924 per pupil in the San Antonio district and only $128 in Edgewood, Alamo Heights also received a share of state and federal funds—almost $8,000 yearly for a class of 20 children. Most of this extra money, quite remarkably, came to Alamo Heights under the “equalizing” formula.
Some hope of change was briefly awakened in the fall of 1989 when front-page headlines in the New York Times and other leading papers heralded the news that the school funding system in the state of Texas had been found unconstitutional under state law. In a nine-to-zero decision, the state supreme court, citing what it termed “glaring disparities” in spending between wealthy and poor districts, said that the funding system was in violation of the passage in the Texas constitution that required Texas to maintain an education system for “the general diffusion of knowledge” in the state. The court’s decision summarized some of the most extreme inequities: District spending ranged from $2,112 to $19,333. The richest district drew on property wealth of $14 million for each student while the poorest district drew on property worth only $20,000 for each student. The 100 wealthiest districts taxed their local property, on the average, at 47 cents for each $100 of assessed worth but spent over $7,000 for each student. The 100 poorest districts had an average tax rate more than 50 percent higher but spent less than $3,000 for each student. Speaking of the “evident intention” of “the framers of our [Texas] Constitution to provide equal educational advantages for all,” the court said, “Let there be no misunderstanding. A remedy is long overdue.” There was no reference this time to the U.S. Constitution.
Stories related to the finding dominated the front page and the inside pages of the San Antonio Express-News. “Students cheered and superintendents hugged lawyers in an emotional display of joy,” the paper said. In the library of John F. Kennedy High School in the Edgewood district,Demetrio Rodriguez put his hand on his chest to fight back tears as students, teachers and community leaders cheered his vindication and their victory. As the crowd rose to applaud the 64-year-old man, Rodriguez spoke in halting words: “I cried this morning because this is something that has been in my heart.… My children will not benefit from it.… Twenty-one years is a long time to wait.” Rodriguez, a sheet-metal worker at a nearby U.S. Air Force base, had lived in San Antonio for 30 years. “My children got caught in this web. It wasn’t fair … but there is nothing I can do about it now.” The problem, he said to a reporter, should have been corrected 20 years before.
In an editorial that day, the paper said that what the court had found “should have been obvious to anyone” from the beginning.
The Edgewood superintendent, who had been the leader in the latest round of litigation, spoke of the attacks that he had weathered in the course of years. He had been a high school principal in 1974 when the original Rodriguez finding had been overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court. “It was like somebody had died …,” he said. In the years since, he had gone repeatedly to the state capital in Austin, where he was met by promises from legislators that they would “take care of it,” he said. “More and more task forces studied education,” he recalled, while another generation of poor children entered and passed through the Edgewood schools. At length, in 1984, Edgewood joined with seven other poor school districts and brought suit against the state and 48 rich districts. The suit was seen by some as a class war, he said. He was accused of wanting to take away the “swimming pools,” the “tennis courts” and “carpeted football fields” from wealthy districts. “They’d say I was being Robin Hood …,” he said. The district, he assured reporters, was not looking to be given swimming pools. All the district wanted was “to get us up to the average.…” Children in Edgewood, he said, had suffered most from being forced to lower their horizons. “Some of the students don’t … know how to dream.… They have accepted [this],” he said, as if it were “the way [that] things should be.”
The governor of Texas, who had opposed the suit and often stated he was confident the court would find against the claims of the poor districts, told the press of his relief that the Supreme Court hadn’t mandated an immediate solution. “I am extremely pleased,” he said, “that this is back in the hands of the legislature.…”
The chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission, who was running for governor as a Republican, voiced his concern that people might use this court decision to impose an income tax on Texas.
The U.S. Secretary of Education, Lauro Cavazos, came to Texas and provided fuel for those who sought to slow down implementation of the court’s decision. “First,” he said, “money is clearly not the answer.…” Furthermore, he said, “there is a wide body of research” to support that view and, he added, in apparent disregard of the conclusions of the court, “the evidence here in Texas corroborates those findings.” He then went on to castigate Hispanic parents for not caring about education.
Meanwhile, the press observed that what it termed “the demagoguery” of “anti-tax vigilantes” posed another threat. “Legions of tax protestors” had been mobilized, a local columnist said. It was believed that they would do their best to slow down or obstruct the needed legislative action. Others focused on the likelihood that wealthy people would begin to look outside the public schools. There were already several famous private schools in Texas. Might there soon be several more?
Predictions were heard that, after legislative red tape and political delays, a revised state formula would be developed. The court would look it over, voice some doubts, but finally accept it as a reasonable effort. A few years later, O. Z. White surmised, “we’ll discover that they didn’t do the formula ‘exactly’ right. Edgewood probably will be okay. It’s been in the news so it will have to be a showpiece of improvement. What of the children in those other districts where the poor Hispanic families have no leaders, where there isn’t a Rodriguez? Those are the ones where children will continue to be cheated and ignored.
“There’s lots of celebration now because of the decision. Wait a year. Watch and see the clever things that people will contrive. You can bet that lots of folks are thinking hard about this ‘Robin Hood’ idea. Up in Alamo Heights I would expect that folks have plenty on their minds tonight. I don’t blame them. If I lived in Alamo Heights, I guess I’d be doing some hard thinking too.…
“We’re not talking about some abstraction here. These things are serious. If all of these poor kids in Cassiano get to go to real good schools—I mean, so they’re educated well and so they’re smart enough to go to colleges and universities—you have got to ask who there will be to trim the lawns and scrub the kitchen floors in Alamo Heights. Look at the lights up there. The air is nice and clean when you’re up high like that in Texas. It’s a different world from Guadalupe. Let me tell you something. Folks can hope, and folks can try, and folks can dream. But those two worlds are never going to meet. Not in my life. Not in yours. Not while any of these little kids in Cassiano are alive. Maybe it will happen someday. I’m not going to be counting.”
Around us in the streets, the voices of children filled the heavy air. Teen-age girls stood in the doorways of the pastel houses along Guadalupe while the younger children played out in the street. Mexican music drifted from the houses and, as evening came to San Antonio, the heat subsided and there was a sense of order and serenity as people went about their evening tasks, the task of children being to play and of their older sisters to go in and help their mothers to make dinner.
“Everything is acceptance,” said O.Z. “People get used to what they have. They figure it’s the way it’s supposed to be and they don’t think it’s going to change. All those court decisions are so far away. And Alamo Heights seems far away, so people don’t compare. And that’s important. If you don’t know what you’re missing, you’re not going to get angry. How can you desire what you cannot dream of?” But this may not really be the case; for many of the women in this neighborhood do get to see the richer neighborhoods because they work in wealthy people’s homes.
According to the principal of Cooper Middle School, crack addiction isn’t a real problem yet for younger children. “Here it’s mainly chemical inhalants. It can blind you, I’ve been told. They get it mainly out of spray-paint cans and liquid paper,” he says wearily.
But a social worker tells me there’s a crack house right on Guadalupe. “There is a lot of prostitution here as well,” she says. “Many of these teen-age girls helping their mothers to make supper will be pregnant soon. They will have children and leave school. Many will then begin the daily trip to Alamo Heights. They’ll do domestic work and bring up other people’s kids. By the time they know what they were missing, it’s too late.”
It is now the spring of 1991. A year and a half has passed since these events took place. The Texas legislature has at last, and with much rhetoric about what many legislators call “a Robin Hood approach,” enacted a new equalizing formula but left a number of loop-holes that perpetuate the fiscal edge enjoyed by very wealthy districts. Plaintiffs’ attorneys are guarded in their expectations. If the experience of other states holds true in Texas, there will be a series of delays and challenges and, doubtless, further litigation. The implementation of the newest plan, in any case, will not be immediate. Twenty-three years after Demetrio Rodriguez went to court, the children of the poorest people in the state of Texas still are waiting for an equal chance at education.
I stopped in Cincinnati on the way home so that I could visit in a school to which I’d been invited by some friends. It was, I thought, a truly dreadful school and, although I met a number of good teachers there, the place left me disheartened. The children were poor, but with a kind of poverty I’d never seen before. Most were not minority children but the children of poor Appalachian whites who’d settled in this part of Cincinnati years before and led their lives in virtual isolation from the city that surrounded them.
The neighborhood in which they lived is known as Lower Price Hill. Farther up the hill, there is a middle-income neighborhood and, at the top, an upper-income area—the three communities being located at successive levels of the same steep rise. The bottom of the hill, which stands beside the banks of the Ohio River, is the poorest area. The middle of the hill is occupied by working families that are somewhat better off. At the top of the hill there is a luxury development, which has a splendid view of Cincinnati, and a gourmet restaurant. The division of neighborhoods along this hill, with an apportionment of different scales of economics, domicile and social station to each level, reminded me of a painting by Giotto: a medieval setting in which peasants, burghers, lords and ladies lead their separate lives within a single frame.
To get to the neighborhood you have to drive from the center of the city through the West Side, which is mainly black, and then along a stretch of railroad tracks, until you come to the Ohio River. Lower Price Hill is on the north side of the river.
Some indication of the poverty within the neighborhood may be derived from demographics. Only 27 percent of adults in the area have finished high school. Welfare dependence is common, but, because the people here identify the welfare system with black people, many will not turn to welfare and rely on menial jobs; betterpaying jobs are quite beyond their reach because of their low education levels.
The neighborhood is industrial, although some of the plants are boarded up. Most of the factories (metal-treatment plants and paint and chemical manufacturers) are still in operation and the smoke and chemical pollutants from these installations cloud the air close to the river. Prostitutes stand in a ragged line along the street as I approach the school. Many of the wood-frame houses are in disrepair. Graffiti (FUCK YOU, painted in neat letters) decorates the wall of an abandoned building near the corner of Hatmaker Street and State.
The wilted-looking kids who live here, says Bob Moore, an organizer who has worked with parents in the neighborhood for several years, have “by far the lowest skills in math and reading in the city.” There is some concern, he says, about “developmental retardation” as a consequence perhaps of their continual exposure to the chemical pollutants, but this, he says, is only speculation. “That these kids are damaged is quite clear. We don’t know exactly why.”
Oyler Elementary School, unlike so many of the schools I’ve seen in poor black neighborhoods, is not so much intense and crowded as it is depleted, bleak and bare. The eyes of the children, many of whom have white-blond hair and almost all of whom seem rather pale and gaunt, appear depleted too. During several hours in the school I rarely saw a child with a good big smile.
Bleakness was the order of the day in fifth grade science. The children were studying plant biology when I came in, but not with lab equipment. There was none. There was a single sink that may have worked but was not being used, a couple of test tubes locked up in a cupboard, and a skeleton also locked behind glass windows. The nearly total blankness of the walls was interrupted only by a fire safety poster. The window shades were badly torn. The only textbook I could find (Mathematics in Our World) had been published by Addison-Wesley in 1973. A chart of “The Elements” on the wall behind the teacher listed no elements discovered in the past four decades.
“A lot of these kids have behavior problems,” the science teacher said. He spoke of kids with little initiative whose “study habits,” he said, “are poor.” Much of what they learn, he said, “is gotten from the streets.” Asked if more supplies, a cheerier classroom or a better lab would make a difference, he replied that he was “not sure money is the answer.”
The class was studying a worksheet. He asked a question: “What is photosynthesis?”
After a long wait, someone answered: “Light.”
“This is the least academic group I have,” he told me after they were gone.
Children who attend this school, according to a school official, have the second-highest dropout rate in Cincinnati. Of young people age 16 to 21 in this community, 59.6 percent are high school dropouts. Some 85 percent of Oyler’s students are below the national median in reading. The school spends $3,180 for each pupil.
The remedial reading program, funded by a federal grant, has only one instructor. “I see 45 children in a day,” she says. “Only first and second graders—and, if I can fit them in, a few third graders. I have a waiting list of third grade children. We don’t have sufficient funds to help the older kids at all.”
There are four computers in the school, which holds almost 600 children.
The younger children seem to have a bit more fire than those in the science class. In a second grade class, I meet a boy with deep brown eyes and long blond hair who talks very fast and has some strong opinions: “I hate this school. I hate my teacher. I like the principal but she does not like me.” In the morning, he says, he likes to watch his father shave his beard.
“My mother and father sleep in the bedroom,” he goes on. “I sleep in the living room. I have a dog named Joe. I have a bird who takes her bath with me. I can count to 140. My mother says that I do numbers in my sleep.”
Three girls in the class tell me their names: Brandy, Jessica, Miranda. They are dressed poorly and are much too thin, but they are friendly and seem glad to have a visitor in class and even act a little silly for my benefit.
Before I leave, I spend part of an hour in a class of industrial arts. The teacher is superb, a painter and an artisan, who obviously likes children. But the class is reserved for upper-level kids and, by the time they get here, many are worn down and seem to lack the spark of merriment that Jessica and Brandy and their classmates had. It does seem a pity that the best instruction in the school should be essentially vocational, not academic.
Next year, I’m told, the children of this school will enter a cross-busing program that will mix them with the children of the black schools on the West Side. Middle-class white neighborhoods, like Rose Lawn for example, will not be included in the busing plan. Nor will very wealthy neighborhoods, like Hyde Park, be included.
I ask a teacher why Hyde Park, where friends of mine reside, won’t be included in desegregation.
“That,” he tells me, “is a question you don’t want to ask in Cincinnati.”
Cincinnati, like Chicago, has a two-tier system. Among the city’s magnet and selective schools are some remarkable institutions—such as Walnut Hills, a famous high school that my hosts compared to “a de facto private school” within the public system. It is not known if a child from Lower Price Hill has ever been admitted there. Few of these children, in any case, would have the preparation to compete effectively on the exams that they would have to take in order to get in. Long before they leave this school, most of their academic options are foreclosed.
From the top of the hill, which I returned to visit the next day, you can see across the city, which looks beautiful from here. You also have a good view of the river. The horizon is so wide and open, and so different from the narrow view of life to be surmised from the mean streets around the school—one wonders what might happen to the spirits of these children if they had the chance to breathe this air and stretch their arms and see so far. Might they feel the power or the longing to become inheritors of some of this remarkable vast nation?
Standing here by the Ohio River, watching it drift west into the edge of the horizon, picturing it as it flows onward to the place three hundred miles from here where it will pour into the Mississippi, one is struck by the sheer beauty of this country, of its goodness and unrealized goodness, of the limitless potential that it holds to render life rewarding and the spirit clean. Surely there is enough for everyone within this country. It is a tragedy that these good things are not more widely shared. All our children ought to be allowed a stake in the enormous richness of America. Whether they were born to poor white Appalachians or to wealthy Texans, to poor black people in the Bronx or to rich people in Manhasset or Winnetka, they are all quite wonderful and innocent when they are small. We soil them needlessly.