Underfunding & Inequality in the Schools

October 3, 2006

The following is excerpted from a new pamphlet published by the Committee to Defend Public Education.

Our public schools are facing a dire situation, as funding is constantly being cut. Not only is funding insufficient across the board, but enormous disparities exist between rich and poor districts. This criminal underfunding of schools results in a narrowed curriculum, overcrowded classrooms, overworked and underpaid teachers, high dropout rates and low academic achievement.

We must continue to demand that a high quality education is an equal right for all, not a privilege for a few. The existing inequalities can be eliminated if government, at every level, would fulfill its responsibility to properly fund the public schools. . . .

Underfunding impacts every aspect of the school system.

At the most basic level, a public education requires physical infrastructure, and that of the U.S. public schools is crumbling. The average school building is over 42 years old. This means 14 million children are in schools that need replacing or extensive repairs. 30% of the schools have never undergone major repair. Even when the 1984 Asbestos School Hazard Abatement Act mandated clean ups of schools, only 1/3 of the qualified schools were cleared of asbestos. Overall, $268 billion is needed to bring the nation's schools into good condition.

Many of the school buildings aren't buildings at all, as our overcrowded schools are spilling over into trailers. Instruction often takes place in hallways and closets, while class size soars well beyond our own government's recommendations for student-teacher ratio. In Chicago Public Schools the official class size for elementary is 28 students; for intermediate and high school it is 31. Even these ratios, far too high for quality instruction, are easily violated because of the loophole "in schools where space is available." Added to the problem of overcrowding and understaffing, are rounds of teacher layoffs that have disrupted both the schools and the teachers. Chicago Public Schools laid off 1,100 teachers in 2005 and 1,000 teachers in 2006. The pay received by veteran teachers who are kept on by CPS is below average when compared to the suburbs. The supposed goal of keeping and retaining quality teachers is clearly not being met due to this sad underfunding of salaries.

Of course, the most important impact of the extreme underfunding of the schools is the effect it has on student achievement. It is well understood that a well-rounded education is best. Underfunding has resulted in cuts to the curriculum, which often means students are deprived of art, music and athletic experiences. Purchases of instructional materials are often put on hold, leaving students with old, out-of-date textbooks to study from. A study by the U.S. Dept. of Education showed that students in poor districts score, on average, 2 grades lower in math, and 4 grade levels lower in reading than students in wealthier districts. The study showed that this held true regardless of students' socioeconomic background. If the district was underfunded, students did worse. This demonstrates that it is, in fact, school funding, not students' socioeconomic status, that is preventing their success at school. . . .

How Schools are Underfunded

The federal government provides, on average, only about 7%-9% of school revenues, leaving most of the burden to fall to state and local governments. The 2007 federal budget calls for over $630 billion to be spent on the military but only $54.4 billion on education. Yet most Americans agree that education is one of our biggest investment priorities. The government's budget should reflect the wishes of the people.

State governments are also failing in their responsibility to provide for the "general welfare," by investing in education. Illinois ranks 48th out of 50 in state funding for education, providing only about 37% of public schools' funds. The Illinois Education Funding Advisory Board has officially recommended that the state legislature immediately increase per pupil funding to $5,665/year (a $1,000/year increase). To date this recommendation remains unfulfilled. . . . Governments are ignoring their own recommendations, blatantly denying students the very minimum that they are entitled to for a basic education.

The criminal irresponsibility of the federal and state governments means that most of the burden falls to local communities. Because of the huge range in the property taxes collected in different communities, the result is an enormous disparity in per pupil funding. In Illinois, it ranges from less than $5,000 per pupil in the poorest districts, to more than $23,000 in the wealthiest district. There is no question that this disparity in dollars creates a disparity in the quality of education.

Even within the Chicago public schools, huge disparities exist. In 1999, some CPS schools had per pupil funding of $5,978 while others spent a paltry $1,875.

These disparities exist across the country. A study in 2000 showed that, across the country, districts that educate poor students received $966 less per students than low poverty districts. It seems the students with the most need often receive the least amount of funding. . . .

Public education is one of the great achievements of our nation. The working class has fought hard for the last 200 years to gain public education for all. The struggle is not over, and indeed must be intensified. Struggles are occurring all across the nation, often with success. . . .

We demand that:

1. Education is a right which belongs to each and every member of our society.

2. Government must guarantee all the resources necessary to properly fund education.

Every level of government must be held responsible; in the final analysis, the best solution is for the federal government to guarantee full and equal funding for all schools.

3. Inequality in education must be eliminated.

As a starting point, the funding for poorer school districts must be brought up to the level of funding available for the wealthiest districts. Even more, funding should be based on need, with additional funds provided for communities and children with historical disadvantages, special needs, etc.

4. The system of free public education must be extended to include infant care, pre-K, university and continuing adult education.

5. We aim at the highest quality education for all.

Schools must provide a safe, modern infrastructure as well as an enlightened, all-sided curriculum. Class sizes and all educational tools must be in line with educational best practice.

(The Committee to Defend Public Education has also recently published pamphlets on Charter Schools and Standardized Testing. To contact the CDPE: www.teacherschalkboard.org.)