There has been much discussion of late concerning the expense involved in the education of disadvantaged children.  The success of the highly praised Harlem Children’s Zone schools is attributed to, and criticized for, that project’s access to hedge fund capital.  Newark’s Abbott funding, at $22,000 per student, is seen as off the charts.  In these discussions, after these criticisms, the question is said to be:  How can the quality of education offered by the Harlem Children’s Zone, by suburban Montgomery County Public Schools, and by private schools be replicated by the average local district, given average funding?

wpid10020-wpid-this_is_dropout_nation_logo2It is the wrong question. The correct question is:  How can we best provide resources, including more money, to children in order for each child to attain high-quality education, without regard to where they live or their family background? This is a question that has to be considered in the light of the education currently provided for four typical students.  Let’s call them Alice, Bill, Catherine and David.

Bill’s family lives in the inner city of a metropolitan area. His mother is a nurse’s aide. Food stamps help her get through the month. His father, who is no longer in prison, has not seen Bill in quite some time.  Bill’s grandmother was from a West Virginia mining town. Her education ended at sixth grade.  Bill’s grandfather had to quit going down the mines when his lungs gave out. He died young from emphysema and alcoholism. Bill’s mother and grandmother want him to have a better life, but they have few resources to help him toward that goal. One quarter of the students in the schools Bill attended graduate from high school on-time and college ready. The annual per student expenditure of the district is $12,000.  Bill went to summer school twice, when he was held back at grade 7 and then again at grade 9. He has stopped going to school. He tells me he is working on his GED.

David lives in Bill’s neighborhood. His mother and father are both school teachers and have access to knowledge and resources not afforded to Bill’s family. They worked hard to get him into one of the few good schools nearby, a public school that is open from eight in the morning to nine at night, on weekends and in the summer and uses money raised from foundations to supplement the district’s funding. The expenditure per student from all sources is about $21,000 a year. David’s parents were able to contribute about $6,000 per year to his education for tutoring, Saturday language classes, and some educational travel. David has been accepted to the public university’s honors program.

Alice’s family lives in a suburb in the same metropolitan area as Bill.  Her father is a surgeon; her mother, although trained as a scientist, has decided to remain at home.  Alice’s father makes between $150,000 and $200,000 a year, which is far above the median, but not considered wealthy by many Washington decision-makers. The annual per student expenditure of her school district is $28,000.  All of Alice’s grandparents have advanced degrees:  two in the sciences, two in the humanities.  They have been deeply involved in her informal education.  She went to summer school nearly every year, except when her parents or grandparents had taken her to Europe for a few weeks.  She is trying to decide whether to go to Princeton or to the University of California, San Diego.  Her parents estimate that their family contributed, on average, $15,000 per year to her education in the form of language and music lessons, educational travel and the like.

Catherine’s family lives about forty miles from Bill’s neighborhood.  Her father used to work on Wall Street, but now he works from a building owned by his investments firm in a small city near where they live.  Her mother sells real estate—mostly houses, but some horse ranches.  Catherine’s mother’s parents live on investments made by their parents.  Her father’s parents had founded a company that had something to do with cars, she is not sure what exactly.  Catherine goes to a private school in New England, for which her parents pay $40,000 a year, but as it actually spends much more than that on each student, her father has become chairman of the school’s annual appeal and makes significant leadership gifts.  Catherine has taken some college-level courses in mathematics.  Given that and her fluent French and Spanish, she is considering a career in international trade and is deciding now between spending her freshman year in either Paris or London.

Let’s do the sums. Bill’s education costs $12,000 a year, but averaged less over twelve years, as he dropped out in grade 11. David’s education costs $27,000 per year. Alice’s education costs $43,000 per year.  Catherine’s education costs about $60,000 per year, when the school’s endowment funds and her educational travel are factored in. Just as importantly, Alice, Catherine, and David have access to opportunities and resources beyond money – from field trips to Saturday and summer school classes – that Bill never had.

Why is Bill’s future worth less than David’s or Alice’s or Catherine’s? Why do we, alone in the world, fund education from property taxes, which both guarantees that the children of the well to do will have more spent on their education than children living in poverty, and keeps some kids from accessing high-quality learning? If we believe that all children deserve high quality education, then why do we not provide it to all of them?

The question is not how to improve the education of the disadvantaged without spending more money. The question is how can we have a future worthy of our past without providing all the resources necessary, including and beyond money, for excellent education for all our children?

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