When asked to identify the biggest problem facing our public schools, the majority of respondents to the PDK/Gallup Poll identify lack of financial support as the culprit. The response is strongest from parents with children in school, and the percentage has increased significantly over the last 10 years. The disparity in performance is also acknowledged in response to the question: “How much would you say the quality of the education provided by the public schools in your state differs from school district to school district?” Seventy percent acknowledge that there is a great deal or quite a lot of difference. A whopping 97 percent of respondents feel that it is very or fairly important to improve the nation’s urban schools, and 62 percent would be willing to pay more taxes to improve their quality—an amazing statistic given the current state of our economy.
It would seem from the poll results that the American public is very much aware of the problem facing our schools and is willing to do something about it. Many of our schools lack adequate financial support, and the public is willing to pay higher taxes to remedy the situation. The problem lies in the ways our schools are funded. The taxpayers in the schools that need more funds do not have the ability to pay higher taxes. A question not asked by the poll but perhaps worthy of consideration for future polls would be, “Would you be willing to pay higher taxes to support schools in communities other than your own?”
In most states, school aid formulas are set to do just that, driving more state aid dollars to low-income school districts. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) also was enacted to drive federal dollars to districts based on economic need. Unfortunately, neither the state nor the federal formulas have succeeded in erasing the economic and achievement gaps. The wealthier the community, the more per-pupil dollars that can be raised for the schools in that community. Even when attempts are made to cap the amount of per-pupil spending for education, in the wealthier communities the parents will come to the rescue by raising funds to provide the additional resources they want for their children.
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Our schools are far from perfect, and there is much that can be done to improve them all. For example, we need to get away from the current time-based, age-based, grade-level structure. We need to do away with seat time requirements and move to a competency-based approach that allows each child to be educated at his or her own pace. Technology can support an individually-based educational system for all children.
But we also need to reform how we fund our public schools and move toward a system where the states and the federal government provide the funding that will truly equalize the playing field. Those are the reforms that will make a difference and improve the quality of education for all of our children. Unfortunately, none of it seems to be part of the current reform agenda.
Daniel A. Domenech is executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.