Miller: U.S. needs strike over inequities in public schools

If the changes that won unanimous Board of If the changes that won unanimous Board of Regents approval Monday, Oct. 20, 2014, win final approval from the Regents in January as scheduled, they would first take effect with teenagers who entered ninth grade in 2011 and are due to graduate in June 2015. Photo Credit: Daniel Brennan

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Lost in the clash between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis is an injustice whose remedy would do more to improve schools in the Windy City than anything to which the two sides just agreed.

I'm talking about the uniquely American local system of school finance - one that dooms millions of poor children to the least-qualified teachers and most run-down facilities in the country. No other wealthy nation tolerates the funding disparities between rich and poor districts that the United States does. Even conservatives in other countries agree that poor kids need greater investment to overcome disadvantage. Yet calling attention to this scandal is taboo in American politics because it hides behind the mask of "local control." Look at the issues at the heart of the Chicago strike and you will see a common denominator: money. It takes money to boost teacher salaries to attract and retain decent talent. It takes money to extend the school day and to make sure the extra time is used well. It takes money to address overcrowded classes or textbook shortages.

Yet to listen to conservative critics, Chicago's schools are already rolling in dough. "Chicago teachers already make on average far more ($71,000) than the average private worker ($47,000)," the Wall Street Journal's editorial page chided, adding that the deal "will increase the wealth redistribution." Where to begin? For starters, we should want teaching to pay more than the average job because the profession is critical to the nation's future. Cancer researchers at the National Institutes of Health; nuclear engineers in the Navy; and economists at the Federal Reserve make more than average workers, too, and that's a good thing. So let's get past ideological attempts to stoke resentment of public workers and focus on how to make schools in poor neighborhoods better.

Once we do, as anyone in business can tell you, the salary comparison that matters isn't teachers versus average workers in Chicago, but teachers in Chicago versus teachers in Chicago's nearby affluent suburbs. Schools in a local labor market compete for the teaching and administrative talent that determines whether or not schools excel.

In 2011, Chicago's public schools spent $7,946 per pupil for instructional (that is, classroom) purposes; the New Trier school district, a short ride up the road, spent $12,043, or 51 percent more. In a class of 25 kids, that's a difference of more than $102,000. This explains why starting and maximum salaries for teachers in New Trier are much higher than in Chicago; and why the average teacher salary in New Trier is $103,000 compared with Chicago's $71,000. (These figures are from the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability in Chicago, which tracks fiscal- equity trends.) The point? When suburban schools pay better, have much nicer facilities and working conditions, and are filled with kids who are easier to teach (because they don't have the many problems that come with poverty), it is no surprise that, over time, the best teachers gravitate to the best suburban schools. We are relying on the "missionary plan" to staff schools in poor neighborhoods.

The local property-tax basis of much school finance means wealthier communities can tax themselves at lower rates and still generate far more spending per pupil. New Trier has 7.5 times the property wealth per pupil that Chicago has, taxes its residents' property at roughly half Chicago's rate, and generates vastly more dollars per pupil.

Lower taxes, better schools - nice deal if you can get it.

School-finance inequity has been largely invisible in U.S. politics for three reasons.

First, teachers unions are uncomfortable talking about the lower-caliber talent the profession can recruit, on average, for schools in poor neighborhoods. It feels disrespectful to the current corps, many of whom are talented instructors working their hearts out under trying conditions.

Second, the U.S. tradition of "local control" of schools - which really means "local control and funding" - has given an unjust system a patina of virtue. In Illinois, two-thirds of school financing comes from local taxes; you can't save poor kids without higher levels of government putting up cash.

Finally, some urban districts - Newark, N.J., and Washington are the leading examples - have high per-pupil spending and shoddy results. Most poor districts don't spend as much as nearby suburbs, but critics use these outliers to discredit the idea that money matters. (A new report out this week from my colleagues at the Center for American Progress chronicles other "stealth inequities" in school funding, as well.) Not long ago, I spoke with an education official in Singapore, whose system is widely praised for its teaching talent, and for making sure schools serving poor children have teachers just as good as those serving well-to-do families.

"I guess that commitment to equity is a cultural norm," I said at one point.

"No, it's not a 'cultural norm,'" he said, correcting me. "It's a policy choice." A policy choice. Imagine if the U.S. made a choice like that.

You won't hear a peep about school-finance equity in the presidential campaign, even though both candidates claim to be passionate about education. Republican nominee Mitt Romney won't raise it because fixing it involves - gulp! - "redistribution." President Barack Obama won't raise it for the same reason (though Education Secretary Arne Duncan has set up a commission, on which I serve, to look at these issues).

The solution is a bigger role for the federal government in school financing. Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that federal officials should provide only 8 percent or 9 percent of the money for K-12 education.

But for now, the only way to get this pervasive injustice onto the national agenda is grass-roots protest. Here is an idea for Chicago's mayor and union chief: Now that the strike is over, why not lead a march on Springfield together to showcase how the Illinois funding system hurts poor kids? And recruit smart high-school students from the inner city to serve as the face and voice of a new movement.

The reforms that Chicago just negotiated may help improve schools incrementally over the next decade or two. But the strike that Chicago and the nation needs is to demand school- funding equity - it is the only way to alter the life chances of today's poor kids while they are still in the classroom.

Matt Miller is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of "The Tyranny of Dead Ideas." He is also host of public radio's "Left, Right & Center."

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