Opponents of public school vouchers emerged victoriously from last November”s elections. In Michigan and California, strong support from the populace defeated ballot initiatives that would have made public school vouchers a reality. These solid defeats suggest that most people understand that a few federal handouts will not solve the problem of deteriorating public schools. Against the better judgment of local officials, a new form of school choice is creeping up in Seattle.
School choice is the idea that parents can choose which public schools they want their children to attend, regardless of the district in which they live. Theoretically, this would allow parents of children living in bad school districts to send the kids away for a better education, thus integrating the system. In reality, this would lead to overcrowding in better suburban schools and continued dilapidation in inner-city schools.
Public schools get their funding on a per-pupil basis each child brings a set amount of money to his or her school. In Seattle, children from low-income families or with poor English skills bring in more money per head, supposedly to cover the added cost of teaching disadvantaged children. In theory, poor schools would see a large increase in immediate cash, as a large majority of their students would qualify for the funds. Also, middle to upper-class schools will want to attract low-income children in order to get this extra funding, thereby increasing diversity throughout the system and fostering competition. As laudable as these goals are, Seattle”s present system falls woefully short.
The main problem is that the monetary bonus is too small. Each low-income elementary student in Seattle schools is afforded $259 more than his or her middle-class counterpart. This amount is not enough to make up for the additional resources that are required to overcome the barriers to the child”s learning lower-class children have received substandard educations from underpaid teachers their whole lives and cannot catch up on a mere $259. Middle to upper- class schools will not want to attract students that cost more money than they bring in. According to Seattle school officials, the extra funding needs to be at least doubled in order to see any real benefits. Because of Federal Title I, low-income additional funds are already allocated to schools in poverty stricken areas these schools complain lack of public support is more of a stumbling block than lack of funding.
Fortunately, programs addressing these issues do exist. “Teach for America” brings college graduates into the classroom for two years of teaching. In 1994, Congress passed the “Goals 2000: Educate America Act” which provides voluntary grants to schools that encourage local planning and focus on public and parental involvement in schools.
Extra funds are necessary to aid ailing public schools, but tiny cash incentives like those offered in Seattle are not sufficient. Until a better budgeting system is proposed, grass-roots volunteerism and strong public support are our children”s best allies.