Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A Better School Funding Mechanism

The Chicago Tribune has the first in a four part editorial series on the funding of schools and the spending priorities in those schools. Long for an editorial, the Tribune editors have some smart ideas but also some common platitudes about education.
Conventional wisdom dictates that the relative affluence or distress of those communities tells us which Illinois schools need help and which don't. Not so. Our impoverished schools pose enormous challenges. But they're not the only ones. Educators in virtually every school across this state need more support to do the jobs being asked of them.

The way we fund those schools divides us into warrior tribes. The way we fund those schools is ... inadequate.

We're not spending enough dollars. And we're not getting enough for the dollars we spend.

As is, this exchange--dollars invested for performance displayed--doesn't serve our children as well as it should and comfortably could.
True most funding mechanisms are greatly impacted by the relative wealth of a given neighborhood, the wealthier the school's neighborhood, the more and better resources are available. But I believe the country and Illinois are spending enough on education, but the Editors are right, we are not getting a very good return on our investment. The editors seem to be leaning to some form of a weighted student funding, with more financial resources going to students in higher poverty areas. While that may help, very little of this initial editorial talks about the need to reform the manner in which funds are spent. Far too much of a school budget is taken up by a bloated bureaucracy, although I am not sure how much that is in Illinois.

The editors will provide answers to the following questions:
How much revenue is needed to provide every child with an adequate education?

What is the most efficient way to raise money for schools without putting too much burden on the state economy?

How should that money be spent to give every schoolchild a fighting chance to succeed?
The answers should be interesting.

To be sure, a dialog is important and I am glad that the Tribune's editors are beginning one. However, the editors seem somewhat naive about a few things. Late in the editorial comes these words:
There is a corrosive habit of citizens, and their politicians, to weight only what a different funding scheme would mean for their communities.

Illinois needs to outgrow this penchant for school financing that can't look beyond economic self-interest. There are plenty of reasons for Effingham taxpayers to care about Hinsdale school children, for Hinsdale taxpayers to care about Harvey school children, for Harvey taxpayers to care about Effingham students. We've just never acknowledged as a state that the future economic health, workforce and leadership of Illinois depend on better educating all of our children. And yes, all children can learn.
Of course people make most of the decisions based upon self-interest. Self-interest is the determinant for a great many of our decisions. It is the role of leaders, the governor and the state legislature, to convince us to look beyond our self-interest to care about the children in other cities and other counties. The problem is that many voters have a severe distrust about the efforts of the legislature and perhaps rightly so. But unless a concrete plan is explained with real explanations of why income and wealth are going to be redistributed to benefit everyone, no plan, no matter how brilliant will ever succeed at overcoming self-interest. And keep in mind, the American voter is probably the one class of people in the world more capable of voting contrary to their self-interest than any other, but they will not do so just because some politician or some editor says so.

Spending money on education is a noble purpose and one the state must undertake. But it is smart spending that will save the day and if Illinois, or any state for that matter, really wants to make a leap in its education spending, they first need to take a red pen to the school budget plan. Taking a good, long, hard look at the current spending practices in conjunction with other school data can do a great job of saying where money should be spent. Otherwise, the future budgeters are likely to make the same mistakes, and that is not progress.

No comments: