Taxation without equal education

GEORGE W. BUSH HIT THE GROUND RUNNING AS THE NATION'S NEARLY DULY-ELECTED CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER with an education reform package meant to bring new federal attention to ailing public schools. Though he managed to avoid the "V" word, Bush did call for parents to have the voucher-esque option of taking a $1,500 federal grant to their private school of choice if their local public school fails to meet performance standards after three years. Other proposals concerning accountability and testing have begun a by-now ritualistic waltz of political rhetoric among elected officials and the punditocracy, but this voucher-in-new-clothing has created the most controversy.

Rich school vs. . . . Unfortunately, all the chatter over testing and vouchers distracts from what is perhaps most damaging to the nation's public education system: its reliance on local property taxes. The federal contribution to education, after all, only represents 7 percent of the money spent on America's schoolsa little over $20 billion of nearly $300 billion each year. Public education is a locally based and locally financed institution in America, and no federal "reform" is going to change that.

Property tax-based funding means that children in affluent districts—often already luxuriating in the many advantages wealth affords—get an additional leg up in our culture: They can take a superior educational experience for granted. Districts in America's poorest communities are unable to generate the revenue required to offer a comparable education to their children.

Disparities that result because of the vagaries of property-tax valuations mean per capita spending on schoolchildren in U.S. suburbs is often thousands more than in urban and rural districts. Tax disparities translate into broad differences in access to technology, extracurricular programming, class size, school maintenance and constructioneven in basic supplies such as up-to-date textbooks and teaching materials. In spot comparisons between districts, so-called public education can look more like a scattering of elite private schools among otherwise profoundly troubled institutions.

. . . poor school?These disparities make a mockery of the American credo of equal opportunity for all.

Pressured by courts, some states have devised revenue-sharing formulas aimed at getting more resources into schools that are faring the worst. Those changes have helped, but educational inequities persist in most states. And even improved school equity does not always translate into improved educational opportunity.

Tax-poor urban school districts must absorb higher security costs, and their older school properties require expensive maintenance. Much of the additional monies that poorer districts have received has been concentrated on a small number of "special needs" students, leaving the rest of the student body to endure the same crowded classrooms, crumbling schools, and outdated textbooks.

It may be true that more money cannot fix all that is wrong with public education, but school officials and parents in wealthy suburban districts appear to believe that throwing a little more money at their kids' educations doesn't necessarily hurt. It's worth noting that only three years after Vermont's Act 60 equalized public school spending throughout the state, the performance gap between students in Vermont's wealthiest communities and its poorest had closed by 26 percent.

Something is fundamentally wrong when schools with the greatest need have the least access to public resources—something that no amount of arguing over testing, accountability, and vouchers can fix. We need to take a hard look at the structural imbalances of the U.S. education system. We need to ensure that public schools—built and maintained with public resources—offer the same opportunity to all schoolchildren.

And public school equity remains a justice issue that warrants a strong commentary from U.S. bishops. The church cannot allow the elusive promise of vouchers to prevent it from taking a position on this important problem.

After all, among the 95 percent of all U.S. children attending public schools are an enormous number of Catholic kids who are being cut off from the kind of learning they are going to need to compete in the new century, the kind of learning they are promised by a just, equitable society.

Kevin Clarke is managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications in Chicago.

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