Commentary: Rich School, Poor School: Can We Level The Field?

New York should try Michigan's answer: Fund schools via state taxes, not property taxes

Parents know the drill. Want new personal computers for the high school? Arrange a jog-a-thon. The district won't fund a part-time music teacher? The playground equipment is falling apart? Bake cookies, sell candy, save labels. Eat at a participating McDonald's.

Such extracurriculars are ingrained in American public education. "This has been going on a long, long time, and it's all over the place," says Richard F. Elmore, education professor at Harvard University. In wealthier districts, parent groups and foundations can augment state and local monies to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. They've never been seriously challenged because the money comprises a small fraction of overall school budgets. Besides, it's also hard to suggest that parents not spend money to improve kids' education.

In late September, though, the issue crystallized in compelling fashion. Parents at New York's Public School 41, in a relatively affluent corner of Manhattan's Greenwich Village, raised $46,000 to underwrite a fourth-grade teacher who had been set for reassignment. The city refused the offer but kept the teacher in place anyway, ordering the district to find the money elsewhere.

TUG OF WAR. The ruckus fascinated education experts because it pitted two cherished notions against each other. Most public school systems, including New York's, hold sacred the belief that the education they give the poorest kid is no worse than that of a rich kid. Yet that democratic instinct fights the equally valid urge of individual parents to get their children the best schooling possible. "There's a lot that's positive on both sides," says Stanford education professor David Tyack.

The tension goes back many years, Tyack notes. In the 19th century, towns built massive, ornate schools to attract middle- and upper-class students, thinking that a diverse population was attractively egalitarian--and that wealthy people were happier to pay property taxes if their kids used the schools. At the same time, schools wrestled with "rate bills," which required parents to pay extra tuition, above taxes, if they wanted more than a few months' schooling. Ultimately condemned as unfair to the poor, the assessments disappeared by 1900.

Today, Americans still struggle with equity. Parents in prosperous Indian Harbour Beach, Fla., will raise as much as $30,000 this year via a walk-a-thon, gift-wrap sales, and the like, helping to pay for Internet connections at Ocean Breeze Elementary School. Rate bills, redux. Across the Intracoastal Waterway at Melbourne's University Park Elementary, however, a coupon-book sale "failed miserably," says Principal Clenton L. Taylor. So did hitting parents up for $10 contributions. Internet connections? With his lower-income parents "so busy trying to survive," Taylor isn't holding his breath.

The problem is not that wealthier people are shelling out more to improve schools: Their impulse and involvement is laudable. Rather, privately raised money increasingly is supporting operations for which government should be responsible. "Traditionally, outside funding has supported the trips, the band, the fringes," says Mary F. Fulton, a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, a research group. Now, she says, it's often used to renovate buildings and pay teachers.

P.S. 41 parents mobilized because losing a teacher would have lifted the number of fourth-graders per class from 26 to 32--meeting the city standard, but still remarkably high. It's no wonder citizens will take such extraordinary action: At P.S. 41, government didn't do the job. "The much bigger issue here is quality of education," says Rebecca Daniels, co-president of the school's PTA. "We need to put more dollars in the budget."

The plain solution: States and localities must guarantee a base of satisfactory public education for all--and allow private money for extras. Michigan attempted this with relative success three years ago, delinking local property taxes from schools and instead allocating education funds centrally from higher state sales and cigarette taxes. Poorer districts won a floor on per-student funding. Rich areas kept their higher budgets but can lift spending just 1.5% a year. Is it fair? Not really. But it does responsibly provide a modicum of quality for all while allowing the opportunity for some districts to create something better. That's not a bad lesson for New York.