School Finance 101: It's Just Not Funny Anymore (and Never Was): Reflections on Educational Inequality and Generations Lost

I’ve been writing this blog since 2009. The initial purpose of the blog was to cut through frequently spewed media bluster about public (and private) schooling. False facts. False premises. Flimsy logic. This blog has often been sarcastic. I’ve tried to use edgy humor to make my points. Some, including my doctoral student Mark Weber, have referred to my style as classic Baker Snark.

That same snark has been pervasive in my Think Tank Reviews for the National Education Policy Center.

From my blog, here’s one example! What’s not funny about this example, is that it’s about subjecting kids in low income and minority neighborhoods to the experiment of using new, noisy, imprecise and largely inaccurate metrics to decide which of their teachers to fire – as a substitute for actually providing sufficient resources for these children and the schools they attend. Yeah. That’s right, let’s just fire their teachers, disrupt their schools, argue that they really don’t need anymore resources, and pretend this will fix everything (and turn a blind eye, or blame it on poor implementation, when it doesn’t work).

Worse, as I note sarcastically in the blog post, the presumption is that we couldn’t possibly cause them any more harm than they’ve already been subjected to for years on end. So why not give this new idea a shot? God forbid we consider remedying the harm we’ve already caused by providing equitable and adequate resources and opportunities.

I tried to make it funny. I think I did make it funny. But you know what, IT’S JUST NOT FUNNY. Not anymore. Nor was it then.

Those kids who were in 5th or 6th grade then? In September of 2010 when I wrote this post? They’ve graduated high school by now (or maybe not). And many were never even given a chance – given the opportunity to succeed in schools with sufficient resources and supports – like the vast resources and opportunities available in the wealthy suburbs (or elite private schools) that other children were lucky (yeah, lucky – myself included) enough to be born into.

I haven’t always tried to be funny here. At times I’ve gone with outrage, or some other form of edginess, usually involving lots of data and graphs.

I’ve frequently updated posts on what I refer to as America’s Most Screwed Public School Districts.

I did a series of posts where I elaborated on the Inexcusable Inequalities in resources between affluent suburban and poor urban (and other) school districts.

My first list of “Screwed Districts” was based on data which are now about 10 years old. The conditions in many if not most of those districts have changed little since then. Kids subjected to those schools are the ones who really got screwed… and most are long since gone from those schools, replaced by a new generation of kids, only to be screwed over at least as much as those who came before them.

I wrote of inexcusable inequalities in Connecticut, Illinois and New York in 2011. Since that time, courts have failed to intervene (or have backed off entirely as in the high court ruling in Connecticut), other “experts” have argued that these kids don’t need more resources anyway… it might actually harm them…to increase resources in their schools… legislatures have failed to act… and governors have blamed teachers, kids, families and anyone but themselves for persistent problems in schools and districts serving our neediest children.

I’ve just completed the final edits of my forthcoming book which addresses much of what I’ve talked about on this blog for years. The book does include some of the same edginess and snark of my past posts, because I wrote it over the past year or so. If I wrote that book now, the tone might be different, though perhaps less entertaining (if school finance can be entertaining).

Stop for a moment, and think about all of the kids, the generations of kids, who’ve passed through inadequately resourced schools during the years from when I started this blog, through today (not to mention the decades prior to that).

Unfortunately, edginess, outrage, sarcasm, data and graphs lack one key element – THE key element needed to make things better – better for more kids – more equitable for all kids – and that is empathy.

Yes, blogging has not been my only activism. I’ve worked tirelessly to advise state legislatures and governors, and I’ve engaged in legal challenges to state school finance systems – trying – trying my hardest to at the very least – make things less bad than they might otherwise be if we didn’t try –  if courts didn’t apply pressure and if legislatures had even less reason to consider doing the right thing.

Yes… some… perhaps many…. Would do the right thing on their own. I must say, that despite the now decade (plus) old critique of Kansas by author Thomas Frank, I’ve been thoroughly impressed by Kansas Legislators, Kansas Courts, and Kansans in their collective (though not always agreeable) pursuit of an education system in which they can be proud. One that, as a result, provides far greater opportunity to even its most needy children than schools in neighboring states in Colorado and Oklahoma. (more on this at a later point, under the hashtag #whatsNOTthematterwithKS?)

Even before I started blogging, I had (I think) gained somewhat of a reputation in conference presentations and scholarly articles for painting egregious behavior and offensive disparities in their most humorous and sarcastic light. Like this article, where partner in crime Preston Green and I outline how state legislators came up with clever strategies to reinforce racial disparities in the post-Brown era. It’s so not funny anymore – and wasn’t then.

I’ve spent much time reflecting this spring, coming to this realization. Reflecting on those cases we passionately pursued, early in my career, like the Kansas cases, where positive change has occurred over time though certainly not linearly by any stretch of the imagination. But also, reflecting on the losses. Not that I see them in any way as my own. My privileged life went on. They are losses for the kids. Here’s a video of Colorado schools at the time of the Lobato case:

Since that time, Colorado has only sunk lower and lower in the distribution of resources among states. A few years prior, I was involved in litigation in Arizona, which was already in worse shape than Colorado. In the years since, millions and millions of additional children in theses states, and other districts around the country have continued to be subjected to inadequate, inequitable schooling, affecting their lives in ways that those of us who were much luckier can’t possibly imagine (my entire career in my present field is built on a combination of luck and the kindness of strangers – another forthcoming post, under that very title).

This all hit me about a month ago. I had arrived to give yet another ho-hum presentation, focusing on the path forward for New Jersey school finance. It was a Friday morning. Just a local thing. I had spent much time earlier that week (and prior weeks) talking with reporters nationally and across states about the link between inadequate funding and teacher wages.

Right before my talk, the conference coordinator asked me to instead discuss the national picture regarding school funding and teacher walkouts, providing some historical context. Easy, right. I do this all the time – from a purely analytic – academic perspective. I’m nearly 20 years into this now. Throw up a few graphs – make a few jokes – express some outrage. Move on. But it hit me. This isn’t funny. Yes, it is outrageous. But not funny.

But, it’s also really, really sad! Those who were there that day can attest to the fact that I got choked up – so much so that I could barely speak at one point and had to take a pause to compose myself.

So, pardon me for a moment while I shed a tear or two (or more) for the generations of children sacrificed in the name of fiscal austerity, provided false choices in the name of efficiency, subject to experimentation without their consent and subjected to woefully inadequate public schooling in Colorado, Arizona, Philadelphia and Reading, Chicago and Waukegan, Puerto Rico and far, far too many other places in this nation and the world.

We can do better. We must do better!

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Bruce D. Baker

Bruce D. Baker is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, where he teaches courses in school finance policy and district business management. His recent research focuses on state aid allocation policies and practices, with particular attention to the equity and adequacy of...