School Libraries Optional for Low-Income Children

In Seattle, a city booming around knowledge-economy and tech industries, low income children have access to only minimal materials in their school libraries while children in other parts of the district have access funded by parent fund-raisers:

In a survey early this year by Seattle librarians, they found one elementary school in Northwest Seattle that received $2,000 from the district for library materials and raised an additional $11,500, for a total of $25.47 per student. In that school, only 9 percent of students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches.

Yet a similarly sized elementary in West Seattle, where 83 percent of the students qualify for federal free- or reduced-price lunches, only $2.14 is spent per student for books and other items. An average book in that school’s library is 24 years old, compared with 13 in the Northwest Seattle school

School librarians took this on, even while they could instead have positioned them in the better-resourced schools where their jobs were easier and more fulfilling.  Kudos to them.

Private Fundraising, Public Schools

A former student was hired as a supplemental reading specialist at a school in which most – but not all – students had passed the state literacy exams.  The parents at this high-income school made it a goal to attain the highest test scores in the district, and then raised money themselves to hire an extra teacher to boost literacy scores.   A few years later, this same school hired another graduate of our program as a science specialist, a position again funded by parent fund-raising.  Across the district, my grad students who teach there tell me, children have very little time a week with stretched literacy specialists and most professional development time is spent trying to figure out how to lift more kids over the “pass” mark on state tests so that dire things aren’t done with the schools’ federal funding.

In another nearby district, parents in the northern schools raise tens of thousands of dollars each year in a school auction, while schools in the southern part of the district have trouble organizing PTAs, as many parents are immigrants moving in and out of nearby apartment buildings.  A principal friend in one of the south end schools joked that she was going to submit a grant proposal to the PTA of the wealthiest northern school, but I don’t think that she actually ever did it.

In yet another district,  many parents in one school work for a Big Name tech company, and one parent donated an entire computer lab to his son’s elementary school.  A teacher in a different school in the district with much more diverse students told me a few months ago that 20 minutes of every hour of computer time for her students  is spent trying to get their aging equipment to boot up and to connect to the inadequate internet.  Many of the kids just give up.

This private fund-raising to fill gaps left by widespread budget cuts has been something of a dirty little secret in education.  My new teacher education students are often somewhat shocked when we talk about it.    And they are more shocked when they hear how much many teachers pay out of their own pockets for classroom materials.

All of this, of course, merely masks how inadequately schools are funded and –more importantly — how higher income parents can shelter their own children from the effects of budget cuts.  When studies are done on the effects of school funding on achievement, these hidden, private funds are of course not included in the calculations.  It seems fair to ask whether *all* parents might invest more in the cause of adequate funding for schools if this private fund-raising were not an option.

The excellent publication Teaching Tolerance has called out this dirty little secret in this excellent essay  that includes examples of districts in which parents can raise money only for the district, not only for their own children’s schools.

We need to be talking much more about this,  naming the ethical issues in allowing some parents to privately fund their children’s public schools while still claiming to be providing equal opportunity.

Update:  In the New York lawsuit over ending tenure for teachers so that all children have access to good  teachers (an equity argument), we hear one of the plaintiff parents explain that a  bad teacher is one who does not spend her own money on basic classroom materials that the district has not provided.

Washington Post columnist Valerie Strauss weighs in:

But it is troubling when the lead plaintiff in an important lawsuit describes a “good” teacher as one who spends personal money to buy school supplies for kids and who gives young kids homework. In this definitional exercise, that means a”bad” teacher is someone who doesn’t do either thing. That’s beyond wrong. It’s scary.


Stacking the Deck Against School Funding

While many of us teach and write about the many reasons (moral and otherwise) to address funding inequities in public education, the press regularly reports on “research” that suggests that substantial increases in school funding don’t produce gains in achievement. These studies are, in turn, cited by policy makers to counter demands for increased funding for schools.

I’ve always appreciated Jonathon Kozol’s response to such arguments: that if funding doesn’t matter, all of those savvy, well-educated parents in suburban schools would quit funding the smaller classes, art teachers, computers, well-stocked libraries, elaborate field trips, and science specialists for their own kids because those parents are not known for casually wasting their money.

But I’ve also wondered what is behind that “research”. Thus, I was interested in this essay from The School Administrator, in which the research methods of one such report are called into question. A quote from the essay:

[L]et’s begin with the report’s claim that even though “per pupil expenditures have increased by 77.4 percent (after adjusting for inflation)” over the past two decades, “student performance has improved only slightly.”

This claim is based on the incorrect assumption schools have the same spending needs now as in the mid-1980s. In reality, school expenditures have increased most on items that are unlikely to show up in standardized test scores, such as special education, dropout prevention, transportation services, health care for employees, school security and free- and reduced-price meals.

Dropout prevention programs offer the best example of the erroneous approach used in the ALEC report. A successful dropout program will keep low-scoring students in school, thus reducing average test scores for the school. The more money spent, the lower the scores.

The Think Tank Review Project, cited in this article, would seem to be a potentially good resource for verifying the claims made by various “research” groups weighing in on educational policy issues. At very least, these reviews could inform the public about conventions of research and, perhaps, support more critical reading beyond the headlines that such reports can generate. This assumes, of course, that the public has an interest in learning more about what does make schools work.

This assumes, too, that the public would be willing to read beyond the think tanks and policy analysts that support what they already believe about schools.