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Mind the Gap

While the one percent has rebounded in spectacular fashion from the impact of the Great Recession, much of America is still suffering its effects. Nowhere is this more evident than in the funding of our public schools. A recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reveals that thirty states are providing less funding per student for the 2014-2015 school year than they did before the recession hit. In fourteen of those states, the reduction in spending per student between 2008 and 2015, adjusted for inflation, is over 10 percent. Only two states show a greater than 10 percent increase in those years – North Dakota and Alaska, no doubt “fueled” by windfalls from the fossil fuel industry.

Federal data show that school districts began cutting staff in mid-2008 and that by 2012 330,000 public school jobs had been lost. Districts have begun adding back some of those jobs, but the total is still down 260,000 jobs when compared to 2008. Since an average of 46 percent of spending on public schools comes from state budgets, cuts like this have a drastic impact on education, particularly in our largest urban school districts serving a high proportion of poorer students where the capacity to raise local tax revenue for schools is very limited.

Not only do these lost jobs seriously affect schools, they also add to the demand on overburdened public and private assistance programs while at the same time diminishing the capacity of local government to raise needed revenue. Tax cuts by austerity hawks compound the problem. In Kansas, for example, an analysis by the Kansas Association of School Boards reveals that while overall school funding from 2009 to 2014 has remained flat, expenditures for teacher salaries and other student services has actually declined. (What has increased are expenditures for buildings, pensions, and subsidized lunches.) Further, while personal income of Kansans has increased 25 percent from 2009 to 2015, total K-12 school funding will have increased only 8 percent.

As funding gaps have grown, another phenomenon is accelerating the growth of the gap between resources available in schools that serve wealthier children compared with those serving poorer children: Private fund raising. The New York Times recently reported that nonprofit foundations linked to public schools raised $880 million in 2010, up from $197 million in 1995. During that same period the number of school-supporting nonprofits increased from 3,500 nationwide to 11,500.

This is good news for public school students, right? Yes, if your child happens to go to a school in a well-off community. In Coronado, California, an upscale suburb of San Diego, local education groups raised more than $1,500 per student in 2010 to supplement the education of 3,200 students. These dollars helped compensate for lost state funding and, according to The Times, helped pay for “arts and music classes at all grade levels, sports medicine courses at the high school and a digital media academy at the middle schools.” All of this isn’t such good news, however, in poorer districts like the nearby San Diego Unified School District where the combined fund raising from more modest households produced an average of $19.47 per student. Don’t look for a sports medicine class in San Diego city schools, or 3-D printers in media academies.

Supporters of directed private philanthropy argue that the ability of donors to support selected schools attended by their children encourages wealthier parents to keep their children in the public schools rather than moving them to private schools, further eroding the beleaguered public school systems. But, as Robert Reich puts it, the energy privileged parents expend raising money for their own children’s school “comes at the potential expense of their political engagement on a broader basis to actually get public dollars to be enough for all kids.” All kids. Privatizing school funding, even modestly, only adds to the gaps that leave our most vulnerable children behind.

State governments reduce expenditures for public education, impacting the poor districts least able to increase local revenues most severely. A gap. Public funds are diverted to charter schools in our large urban systems, further reducing income for the local public schools serving the most low income and special needs children. Another gap. Federal “reform” initiatives add burdensome costs to local districts already struggling to keep basic programs operational. Another gap. Parents in high income brackets raise dollars to preserve essential services in their children’s schools, even adding enrichment programs. Parents in neighboring poor districts can’t. And still another gap. Lots of gaps. Who’s minding the gap?

John H. Thomas
November 13, 2014

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