By David L. Hanrahan
A Village Life Exclusive
A bumper sticker popular among teachers says, "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." It's a warning to those who say American public education and the property tax systems that support it are failing.
But where does all that tax money go, is it being spent responsibly and are taxpayers getting a good return on their investment? The answers to those questions are hard to determine, especially since increasing funding doesn't have a clear relationship with standardized test scores, graduation rates and other measures of academic achievement. Why? Because most school spending has nothing to do with actual curricula.
Dade County, Fla., public schools spend just 1.3 percent of their operating budget on curriculum and staff development. Employee salaries and benefits account for more than 70 percent. The Miami-area system continues to grow despite reduced funding from the federal government. Of its $2 billion budget, less than .5% comes directly from Washington. Most of the rest comes from the state legislature and from local property taxes.
Last October the Decatur, Ala., school board announced plans to spend roughly $12.5 million on capital improvements over the next five years. The costs will include nearly $300,000 for heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, about $350,000 for roofing repairs and more than $140,000 for athletic facilities.
In Shorewood, Wis., an affluent Milwaukee suburb, the school district's employee salaries and benefits are more than 80 percent of its total budget. And the fastest growing segment of Shorewood's budget is maintenance for its aging buildings.
For St. Paul, Minn., salaries and benefits exceed 75 percent of the budget. St. Paul's budget is growing steadily to keep up first with increasing enrollment, but inflation--largely expressed in rising teacher salaries--accounts for the next largest area of growth.
Paying faculty and improving infrastructure are challenges for every school district. The situations in Dade County, Decatur, Shorewood and St. Paul are typical. A bigger challenge, however, seems to be how to allocate the rest of the budget in ways that directly impact on learning.
Development of the curriculum is impeded already by the limited funds available, and today's schools are expected to do more than just teach. Increasingly, today's public schools are asked to mend tears in society's social fabric.
In California the scope of the problem is staggering. On an average school day, about 5.5 million children attend public schools in California. One in four doesn't speak English as a primary language, one in three lives in poverty, one in 10 was born to a mother who abused drugs or alcohol during pregnancy, one in six won't graduate on time, and one in 15 won't graduate at all.
How can California and the rest of the country overcome fiscal and social obstacles to learning? The answer may be technology. While the cost of traditional teaching aids like textbooks continues to increase, advanced technology is becoming more affordable. Personal computers are giving students powerful and exciting new ways to learn, and the incredible growth of the Internet is making access to information easier and more widespread than ever before.
In Napa, Calif.,New Technology High School is attempting to use the computerized classroom to its fullest potential. In operation since last September, New Technology High has at least one computer in every classroom. All students have e-mail. The school's numerous partnerships with high-tech businesses have provided its cutting edge technology. But New Technology High isn't a private school; it's part of the Napa Valley Unified School District.
Gary L. Feenstra is the superintendent in rural Zeeland, Mich. The most rapid growth area in his district's annual $22.9 million budget is technology: up from $35,000 to $200,000 in the last two years. The district raised an additional $3.5 million from a bond issue, also earmarked for technology.
Feenstra says tomorrow's students will need "skill to use technology in some way, [to] read technical information and understand it, to work in teams at times. Therefore we need staff to tie reality to subjects. All of this needs staff development to train teachers on teaching differently, using more information and technology and teaching students how to learn and select important information."
Congress recognized the emerging importance of education-related technology in the budget it passed last Sept. 30, raising technology spending by an 456.2%. Total funding of the Department of Education increased 15.4%.
Still, state governments are the main source of public school funding. And they will have the most to say about how much aid individual districts receive. Some states will continue to divide funds on a strict, per capita basis. The formula is simple: if your state has $2,000 to spend on every student and your district has 5,000 students, then your district's share of the state aid is $10 million.
But states as dissimilar as New Jersey and Wyoming are pioneering a new approach. Rather than blindly appropriating funds per capita, these states plan to establish universal academic goals and to determine the cost of meeting those goals. If that cost is, say, $6,000 per student per year, the state will direct enough additional funding to compensate for the shortfall in districts that are unable to raise $6,000 per student on their own.
In the short term, at least, no single funding solution will work for each and every school district. Our public schools will continue to rely on some combination of business contributions, property taxes and government aid. So, the greatest promise of the last years of this century may be the potential of the Internet to equalize access to information for children in wealthy districts and poor districts alike. As school budgets get tighter, the decreasing cost of high technology will become an increasingly attractive investment.
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