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.


A Charter School’s “Mission Creep” in St. Louis


City Garden Montessori School

New Orleans The bimonthly newsletter, Poverty and Race, is one of those semi-archaic, old school artifacts that still comes, unadorned, in the mail of all things, on buff colored paper without pictures, as it has for many decades, while steadfastly documenting and debating the necessary and ongoing steps to reduce poverty and the destructive impact of racism. Often more academic than activist, I have always found it a compelling touchstone and beacon for the work, often carrying it around, even unread, for months, until at least flipping through the pages. They keep on, keeping on, and I respect that.

Surprisingly, I found myself reading a piece I would normally have skipped over called, “City Garden Montessori School in St. Louis: A Story of Education Reform, Gentrification and Housing Advocacy” by the school’s executive director, Christie Huck, who was also described as a former community organizer. The rough outlines of the piece involve Huck’s moving to the Shaw neighborhood in St. Louis with her family hoping for diversity and seeing on her occasional early morning jogs the host of African-American children waiting for buses to the area public school in the dark, while middle class white neighbors debated how to get their children in magnet and other schools. She elected to send the first of her three children to a local Montessori school and joined with other parents of a similar persuasion to convince the school to become a charter school and expand to the rest of the elementary grades.

The story almost seems banal, it’s so often repeated around the country, but in Huck’s case she was not able to ignore the fact that two separate neighborhoods divided by race and class were increasingly stratifying in Shaw. Furthermore the neighborhood was gentrifying on steroids, raising home values and, paradoxically for families claiming to seek diversity, pushing out the black families. The school began an affordable housing program realizing that unless lower income and African-American families could afford housing in Shaw, it would devolve into a largely white, urban enclave. Many of the school parents whined and moaned that the school was in danger of losing its way for their money with “mission creep” by getting involved in affordable housing and trying to maintain the historic character of the Shaw neighborhood.

What a series of contradictions! I’m not a fan of charters, and am unsurprised that many parents pushed back in hopes of protecting their little island in the storm. ACORN had an office for many years on Grand Avenue in the boundaries of the Shaw area way before gentrification. As much as one part of me read the article shaking my head and suppressing an “I told you so,” the whole way through, most of me wanted to root for Huck and her allies efforts to embrace the full scope of the community and try to preserve its diversity and complexity not only in their self-interest but understanding that it was necessary and the right thing to do.

We may need fewer charters and god knows less clueless, self-absorbed gentrifiers, but just like we need to keep rooting for the Poverty and Race newsletter, we need to encourage and embrace the Huck’s who try stay the course, no matter the contradictions or how they got there to make the way forward work for everyone.


Nine Years after Katrina

Lower 9th Ward before and after

Lower 9th Ward before and after, credit to Ted Jackson at

Little Rock       Perhaps the best news in the nine years since Katrina has been that we have not faced another devastating hurricane, as the city continues to struggle to rebuild.  We had a bit of problem a couple of years ago in 2012, but not so severe that it forced widespread evacuation or extensive damage.  Every year that we can get past Katrina is another gift.

            Surveying the changes over nine years isn’t easy.  Many of the positives come with big, fat “buts.”

            Like the fact that population in the metro area is now 93% of what it was before the storm, but in the city itself we are only 78% of where we were before Katrina.  The Census Bureau estimates New Orleans’ population at 378,715 compared to the 2000 Census population of 484,674.  That’s still 100 grand down, and that’s not good.

            We’re growing, yes, but people still can’t find their way home, especially African-Americans.

The Census Bureau estimated 99,650 fewer African Americans in 2013 compared to 2000, but also 11,494 fewer whites and 6,023 more Hispanics. African-Americans still represent the majority of the city’s population at 59 percent, down from 67 percent in 2000.

All of which means we are becoming more diverse, even while we have so many “missing New Orleans.”  We gained 44,281 Hispanics and 6,564 additional Asian residents. The Hispanic population in the metro spiked 76 percent between 2000 and 2013, a rate greater than the nation’s 53 percent growth.

            So the city fathers that wanted a “whiter” city, didn’t get their wishes, even though their policies barred return for so many.  They also didn’t get a richer city because of their continued programs.

            According to The Data Center’s figures:

While the poverty rate in the New Orleans metro declined from 18 percent in 1999 to 15 percent in 2007, it then increased to 19 percent in 2012, such that it is now statistically unchanged since 1999. In New Orleans itself, the 2012 poverty rate of 29 percent is also statistically the same as 1999 after falling to 21 percent in 2007.   Like the overall poverty rate, child poverty in Orleans Parish and the metro area dropped in 2007 but has since increased to its 1999 levels. In 2012, the child poverty rate was 41 percent in the city and 28 percent in the metropolitan area, both higher than the U.S. rate of 23 percent.

No small reason for the continued poverty and stalled return continues to rest on the problem of inadequate and unaffordable housing, because of the double whammy of first the storm and then the recession which rolled back credit availability and made home reconstruction unaffordable for many low-and-moderate income families.  Rents soared after the storm and continue to be sky high.  The Data Center finds that “36 percent of renters in the city paying more than 50 percent of their pre-tax income on rent and utilities in 2012, up from 24 percent of renters in 2004.”

The beat goes on like that.

We did better on jobs and jobs on recovery after the storm than many cities in the recession, but the jobs didn’t pay diddling, especially when so much of the income went for housing.  Higher education is lagging, especially for African-American men, and the charter school experiment has not moved the needle on failing schools.  New businesses are up, but so are sales tax revenues and other taxes servicing a smaller population, so many of these businesses are marginal.  We have more bike lanes and bike trails but can’t seem to fix the potholes in the streets.

Here’s the story in New Orleans.  We’re going to make it, but every day is still going to mean a struggle over a bumpy road.  We’re going to come back somehow and we’ll welcome all the new people, but we can’t escape the heartache for people we miss, who still can’t make it home.



Calculating Student Loans is Plain as Mud on Department of Education Site

New Orleans    There was an interesting article in the paper today touting the calculator on the United States Department of Education (DOE) website.  They claimed that it would be helpful in figuring out the real costs of education at various institutions.  Sometimes they said, some universities might seem to expense to lower income students evaluating colleges, because it had been too difficult to balance the “sticker” price of a school with the greater levels of financial aid offered by some schools.

Great, I thought!  Let’s take a look at how easy this might be to navigate for lower income parents, assuming computers and internet connections were readily available (not!).  So, here it is:

Budget Calculator

Our budget calculator will help you determine your expenses and estimate your total available income. You will need to consider all of your resources and the total cost of your education. The budget calculator lists most of the important expenses and resources: tuition, books, and scholarships, for example.

To complete the worksheet: Click on each category link below the Expense and Resource headings to open a box for entering data. Enter numbers in the fields that pertain to you and close the pop-up box by clicking on “Done”. When you’ve finished entering values, click on the calculate button at the bottom to get the total estimated expenses, total estimated resources and income, and the balance of your budget. You may change the value in any field at any time. Just click on the category link in the field, enter the changes, then click calculate. If you want to start over, click the reset button.

To use this calculator, you must have a browser that is JavaScript compatible.


  Your balance (income – expense) is: $

How easy does that look to you?  If you hit one of the lines, would you have a plain English explanation of what should go into a category, like say, “in-school interest?”  What the heck might that really be?  Where is the guide to how to use this super tool?  I couldn’t find it, and as a dear friend and comrade used to say, “I’m at least as smart as the average bear.”

In Citizen Wealth, I argued that we needed to be serious about dealing with the obstacles in gaining access to entitlements, services, and, even opportunities, like higher education for lower income families by building resource centers, like the former ACORN Service Centers, that could provide “translators” and “interpreters” to help families navigate the gobbledygook and finally gain access.

Let’s not kid ourselves in these days of spending cutbacks in education that there are high school guidance counselors in every school in the country, who are going to be skilled and able to do this job for all the families that are trying to make decisions for themselves and their children about whether or not they qualify or should strap on tens of thousands of dollars worth of debts that could weigh down their future for years.

What does it take for our society and our government to finally stop talking about inequity and start actually lending a hand to stop it?


Education Stuck in Class

Galveston, Texas, natives Melissa O’Neal, from left, Bianca Gonzalez and Angelica Gonzales took part in a college-prep program for low-income students, but found that school wasn’t a ticket to upward mobility. Michael Stravato New York Times News Service

Dauphine Island    “Life happens,” was a quote from one of the three young women from south Texas who believed so completely that education would change their lives, and perhaps more significantly, redirect their fate and future from the path of their parents to a brighter new world of opportunity.  The Times story was unfair to these three young women though.  “Life” actually happens to everyone.   Decisions are made.  Paths are taken or abandoned.  Choices abound at the crossroads.

Reading the story it became clear that any chance of education changing their lives in the radical way that they hoped it might when they were naïve young girls was only true in the margins or perhaps by even more random luck, because class had already created most of the limits and boundaries.  One faced the long shot odds of $40,000 in debt to Emory University in Atlanta because the university somewhat arbitrarily closed off her application without giving her financial assistance and got the money by almost implicitly agreeing to marry the high school boyfriend and work for his furniture store later.  Even with some college all three were all working hourly shifts in the service industry back in Texas five years later.  One was still trying and close to getting a degree in a local college, but I honestly would challenge anyone reading this piece to smugly argue that graduating or not graduating in her case is going to radically change her prospects.

There can’t be a crueler lie now in America than the notion that simply getting a college degree from any of the thousands of schools out there somehow put the young graduate on the path to a great job and a wonderful future.  She’s still going to be in South Texas, and that’s not a bad place to be, but the jobs are what are available there:  agriculture and its service, service in general, warehousing and distribution, and so forth.

To move out of “class” is not $40,000 but over $200,000 and more if one stumbles from South Texas or any lower income urban neighborhood into something approaching the Ivy League and its “gold card” of greater opportunity.  And, frankly, in this economy that’s no guarantee as well.  I listen and watch at the challenges faced by the young men and women who were my daughter’s classmates at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, which was an excellent institution that provided her a spectacular education.  I don’t mind writing the check every month for what is left on that debt, but I guarantee none of them jumped on the fast train out of Hampshire.  ACORN International has a brilliant volunteer that has done research for us whose mother I met speaking at Williams and who graduated from Hampshire a couple of years after my daughter.  She has gone through internships, interviews, and more to try and find a place to work and make a contribution.  My son with a degree from Rochester Institute of Technology:  same story, different verse.  Frankly, compared to the odds faced by these young women in Texas, both of them had it easy and have emerged smelling like roses.

Was it only last year or the year before when all of these colleges and universities used to talk about need based scholarships and special recruiting efforts to diversify their enrollment based on a fairer chance for lower income, working class students?  What happened to that?  Yes, I know:  life happened to them!  Now all we hear about is that they are raising their tuitions and struggling in the economy, blah, blah, blah.  The first hint of news I heard in this direction was some kind of sweetheart, side deal that some high priced school make recently with KIPP, the charter school operator.  That kind of deal might assuage the conscience of some well paid admissions officer somewhere, but that’s nothing but a sweetheart deal and a slap in the face at public schools and the places where education could be a key out of the class jail.

We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t when it comes to our sorry education systems.  The competition in a small job market means that too many want a college degree for $8, $9, and $10 per hour jobs, so some degree, any degree, is a bump over minimum wage, but $20,000 a year is not a break out of the rigidity of American society’s increasingly rigid class structure.  The sooner we stop pretending that we are solving any problems with either our higher education or “lower” education system, and start really talking about this and other scalable tools to break down class barriers all around us, the better. We’re going to lose more than a generation though by continuing to look backwards and not facing the reality of the mess we have today.