Who Should Control School Funding?

Throughout the United States, a battle has been raging over school funding and reform for decades—but the Great Recession has opened a new dimension in the struggle.
Cash-strapped states have been slashing school funding year after year, continuing an effort begun by “small government” forces, now joined by “deficit hawks.” Recently, every new legislative session brings another epic battle, in which it seems the best a district can hope for is not to lose as much ground as last year.
Blue Valley West High School is in an affluent suburb of
Johnson County, KS, where school patrons are willing to tax
themselves sacrificially if necessary, to fund their schools.
All the same, some localities—such as Johnson County, KS, where I live—have resisted this trend as fiercely as they can. Johnson Countians have a long history of repeatedly raising their own taxes—even during the current economic situation—to strengthen funding for our schools. We’re lucky we can afford to do this, because not all districts are able.
We understandably resent and resist any effort to hold us back from more fully funding our schools—yet this is exactly how funding disparities widen between “have” and “have not” schools. When public schools were being set up in the 19th century, the norms of the day and primitive communications led to the natural outcome that schools were funded by local property taxes, and governed locally. And it has stayed that way.

Unfortunately, we now have such an inequitable system that it probably should be ruled unconstitutional. 
Yet Heaven help anyone today who dares to suggest that US school funding should not be sourced and controlled locally! That is especially true in a relatively affluent area where parents clearly understand the value of a good education, but don’t necessarily trust centralized government to make good school decisions!
Educational innovations such as those practiced at this
school for 7-to-16-year-olds in Espoo, Finland, are proving
difficult to “transfer” to the United States.
This presents a real conundrum for reformers, because pretty much all of the countries with students scoring better than ours seem to be run on centralized systems. 
In top-rated Finland, for example, a central government agency controls the schools, mandates a centralized curriculum and educational approach; funds all schools, regardless of neighborhood, at relatively generous and equitable levels; and pays (not to mention respects) teachers more highly than in the US. How do we apply successful methods from the rest of the world, without changing this “central” aspect?
Indeed, for jealously protective parents who don’t want “outside bureaucrats” meddling with their kids’ schools, the reaction has often been the exact opposite of greater centralization. 
Instead, the cry of “school choice!” has gone up in various districts. This has led to an explosion in the number of homeschoolers, charter schools, and an assortment of voucher systems since the early 1990s. More recently, it also has led to a rise in “virtual” school districts offering courses online.
This water-damaged school in Newark, NJ–with no funds for
repairs–provides a cautionary lesson about too much austerity. 
Some parents who seek greater school choice want to flee crumbling inner city districts, which they—often with justification—see as dangerous places with more focus on crowd control than on nurturing children’s learning. 
Some religiously observant parents fear secular influences may alienate their children from their faith. 
Others resist integration, or disagree with curriculum mandates, or dislike placing their children in a “class-based” system that demands all children must learn the same things, at the same ages, and on the same timetable, no matter what their gifting or challenges may be.
Not all motivations are equally high-minded, but nearly all of those listed above spring from parental concern over what, how, and under what conditions their children are being taught. Parental concerns and a deep American respect for individuality are part of the forces that keep the “centralizers” at bay.
They are not the only interests that must be considered in reform efforts, however. 
Also influential in decisions made at all levels are the business interests of large companies in what has come to be called the “education-industrial complex” (test publishers and scorers, textbook and educational materials publishers, for-profit school management corporations, and many others have increasingly profited from contracts to provide school products and services).
Add to them the extremely well-funded ideologues who have begun to play such a massive role in US politics, and the politicians who depend on them for never-ending campaign financing needs. 
There also are numerous philanthropic foundations, academics, writers, think-tanks, teachers’ unions, teacher-education institutions, and other voices. 
All have points to make, concerns to protect, and all too often axes to grind, because the one who controls the funding gets to have the final say—and in the clearly-failing US schools, a perilous future for all of us is riding in the balance.
PHOTO CREDITS: I took the photo of Blue Valley South High School in southern Johnson County, KS, in February 2007. It is © 2007 by Jan S. Gephardt, and may be used with attribution, but no alterations. The second photo shows a school in Espoo, Finland; 2012 photo by Tuomas Uusheimofor the book, Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? By Pasi Sahlberg. The 2011 photo of the New Jersey school is by Tony Kurdzuk of the New Jersey Star-Ledger.

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jansgephardt

Kansas City-based Jan S. Gephardt is a writer, artist, and teacher. She makes nationally-recognized paper sculpture and writes sf mystery novels about a sapient police dog.

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