Privilege and Politics in School Funding Formulas

photo-originalNew Orleans    In the time of tight public budgets at every level in the uneven recovery from the recession, especially in distressed communities, little is more contentious than the funding formula and the allocation of scarce resources in public schools. There may be few areas in the country where the issue is more weighted than in New Orleans the home of the largest charter school experiment in the country over the last decade, where there continues to be a split system with some schools under the elected board and some still managed by the state.

So, the State of Louisiana is broke as a joke. Not a funny joke, but one leaving the state and much of the educational system in wreck and ruin after the failed narcissism of former governor, Bobby Jindal. Now in the reckoning with reality, the two local New Orleans school systems have tried to work out a formula through the various superintendents and the committees that advise them composed of many of the school principals.

Truth to tell there have been a lot of problems with some of the charters. One of the more noxious has been the sleight of hand used by a number of the charters to steer special needs students anywhere possible as long as it was not their own classrooms. A class action suit brought by national and local civil rights organizations exposed this situation for the venality it represented, but also meant that any funding formula was going to have to do better in supporting special needs students if possible.

It was not a surprise that in the negotiations the often conflicting New Orleans-based school superintendents were able to come to an agreement on a formula, urged and ratified by their advisory committees, but equally unsurprising is the reallocation of funds as the state-based Recovery School District finally grips the reality of return to the Orleans Parish School System. Something was going to have to give, and that turned out to be the “gifted/talented” category. The funding in this category is set to drop under current discussions from $1295 per student down to $375 per pupil. The reductions will be phased in gradually with no school losing more than $170 per student on the average in the coming school year. Seems fair doesn’t it? In fact it was approved 10-1 by the committee. Other organizations from the Urban League to even the Louisiana Association of Charter Schools sent the state board letters of support. Nevertheless, the few schools that are magnet charters for the gifted have squealed like stuck pigs.

Partly that’s because both politics and money demands they play their parts. Politics because their public school student base and more importantly their parents includes people with more clout, louder voices, and deeper pockets than the average public school, so they have a shot that their pleadings might ease the pain. Money, because many of these schools are fundraising juggernauts with their own development staff, tax exempt organizations, and zealot, one-hundred-percent fundraiser parents. From the numbers I happen to hear from one school, Benjamin Franklin High School, they already privately raise more than $1 million to supplement the state and local funds. Though the development team and principal were moaning that they would lose 12% of their funding on their $10 million school budget over the years, they would only lose about $150,000 in this first year, and you get a feeling that is about the dollar amount you could put on whether or not “they protest too much.” The published paycheck for one of the other gifted schools is at the level that she could probably absorb the entire cut in the coming school year by lowering her pay to only $200,000 per year.

People see the schools as privileged, and there is no way to escape that label, since that is also the way the students and their parents see – and talk about — the experience, and why they are so generous in the private fundraising for the schools. Other principles accuse the gifted principals of “driving a smear campaign.” The Republican-sponsor of the bill in the legislature asks the hard question when the state’s pockets are empty: “The gifted-and-talented community gets a very large portion of the pie. And they don’t want to give it up. I don’t want to penalize one group over another, but there are limited funds. Do we take the funds away from the disabled and give them to the gifted?”

Funding fights are hardball, but this one is a good example of a time when it makes sense not to count the dollars, but the votes, and play the long game by learning more about grace, than grab.

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The Painful Tragedy of the Digital Divide

computers_0Little Rock    For more almost 25 years, Local 100 United Labor Unions has represented school support workers mostly in Texas and Louisiana from Head Start to high school from teachers to bus drivers to cafeteria workers and janitors. Most of our work is concentrated in the cities now, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Little Rock, because the members’ dues can afford the infrastructure there, but every month we still get regular dues checks from our members at the outposts of local.

About this time of year when winter lingers and spring is pushing forward in this part of the country, I used to join Orell Fitzsimmons, 100’s Texas State Director, for what we called our “fence mending” tour. I would meet him in Houston and then we would drive to Corpus Christi, meet with Willie Fleming there, and then stay in some cheap motel along South Padre Island before we went through our school districts along the Rio Grande Valley before heading back north toward San Antonio and back around to Houston. Sometimes we would stop and take a picture of Texas state highway 100 on the way to Donna to visit our members in the school district there before doubling back to McAllen, Pharr, McAllen, and Brownsville. Everything in south Texas is a long ride.

The FCC is voting soon on a Band-Aid, but essential program to expand “lifeline” funds collected from the big telecoms to offer increased access to broadband internet to lower income families. If we were really serious about attacking inequality we would do a whole lot more, including forcing these public utilities to make all internet affordable to all families in their homes as a basic necessity, but at least we’re doing a little something-something.

Forty percent of the families in South Texas where we used to fence mend do not have access at home to the internet. Looking at a picture in the New York Times of children standing outside a schoolhouse in McAllen, one of our old Texas school districts, so that they could download homework assignments from a school’s wireless hotspot, is just about enough to bring tears to my eyes from the rage boiling my brain. Reading about a young girl in the Donna Independent School District, that we know like the back of our hands, who rides a bus 3-hours a day so that she can use the Wi-Fi on the bus to keep her grades up is tragic. Reading about another 17-year old girl who finishes her after-school job in Pharr and then has to go to a friend’s house to use the internet in order to get assignments in before the midnight deadline that are required to be submitted on-line just about sends me to the street to scream.

Why are we not doing better for these children? Why are these school districts not paying a janitor a couple of extra dollars to keep the cafeteria open for these young scholars to do their homework until 9PM or even later? Why are teachers so brutally insensitive to the children they see eye-to-eye across their desks? What kind of casual cruelty is becoming part of the DNA of our society? And, that’s downstream, when so much of the problem is upstream in corporate suites and politicians offices.

The Rio Grande Valley is not an exception either. More than 30% lack internet access in New Orleans, Detroit, and other broke-ass cities, that are also not surprisingly majority-minority cities. 25% of library users now in cities according to surveys find their patrons coming to use the computers and internet, yet how many are open the hours that students need?

Half-steps are probably better than standing still, but we need a full-on march to deal with the digital divide and the inequality it advances so clearly for so many struggling so hard.

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