A Tale of Two School Districts

By: 
Al Jacobs

The May 7, 2017, article titled “School Funding Prompts Inequities,” by Aaron Garth Smith, education policy analyst at Reason Foundation, is well-documented. He explains why funding of the public schools in California are dependent upon property taxes and describes how the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, which severely limits the tax, alters the way in which those funds are allocated among the school districts.

Above all, the author stresses throughout his article the importance of the source of money in improving the performance of students. He states: “The most glaring problem with relying on property tax revenues to fund schools is that a child’s ZIP code can determine how many resources their schools have.” He then compares the Laguna Beach Unified School District, a wealthy area generating $16,941 per student in 2016-17, with low-income Garden Grove Unified, contributing only $10,719 per pupil. From this statistic he appears to conclude the more than $6,200 difference explains why student performance in the former is far higher than in the latter, as he adds: “Fully embracing school choice by eliminating its reliance on local revenues would help California improve educational outcomes.”

As you might expect, Smith advocates “funding equity” as a vital element and urges that “to modernize the school finance system and fully transition from district-funding to student-centered funding, the state should abolish the antiquated link between property taxes and a child’s education.” In this way, as he points out, we will “provide the foundation to create a truly equitable education funding system.” He concludes with a call to “discard the idea of local funding” and advocates the concept where money “follows the student to whichever school they choose to attend,” and “is designed, in part, to give low-income students the chance to escape failing schools.”

Considering Smith’s scholastic background, which includes both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration, as well as a position as senior director of an analytics organization, it’s understandable why he concentrates on the close relationship between money and performance. Inasmuch as students from the higher socioeconomic levels invariably outperform those from the other end of the poverty scale, it may seem logical to presume superior learning comes from a well-stocked checkbook.

With the importance of money now firmly established as the primary ingredient dictating the learning a student may attain, you may find the following anecdote somewhat unsettling. The source is an article by prominent columnist Steve Lopez from another publication which, perhaps by coincidence, appeared on the same date. Its title: “Teen of modest means strikes college gold.” The tale concerns 18-year-old Noe Martinon, a senior at Santee Education Complex, a secondary school located in the 1900 block of South Maple Avenue in downtown Los Angeles. Mr. Lopez’s description of the area and the student body of this school requires little embellishment: “This is a neighborhood of people who pay rent, do the city’s essential uncelebrated work and pray their children rise above the many barriers that are part of the landscape.”

To suggest Noe is somehow privileged ignores reality. His parents went no further than the sixth grade in Mexico. His father, Victor, is a janitor at a real estate firm; his mother, Irma, works as a seamstress in a clothing factory. For most of his life the family, including his 19-year-old sister, Giselle, lived in a studio apartment in which two sets of bunk beds occupy much of the living space. On a table between the beds is where Noe and Giselle, a community college student, do their homework. With no further information than what I’ve just presented, you’re entitled to presume Noe is a typical mediocre student in a badly performing school who will go on to achieve little or nothing during the rest of an uneventful life. Sorry to disappoint the elite among you, but things are shaping up quite differently.

During Noe’s sophomore and junior years at Santee, his studies included advanced placement classes in literature, politics, psychology and calculus. According to his literature instructor, Joe Seccola, “his fluency with language is that of a graduate student.” As for his educational future, he aspires to become a teacher. Accordingly, he submitted applications to attend numerous universities. To date he’s received acceptances from most of them, including UC Berkeley, UCLA, Cornell and Dartmouth. It appears his choice will be Pomona College, a liberal arts school in Claremont, California, whose reputation for excellence dates back to its founding in 1887.

With both of these articles now behind us, we’ve arrived at a point where the following rhetorical question deserves to be asked: Inasmuch as scholastic excellence appears to be determined by the quantity of money injected into the educational system, how is it possible for near-penniless Noe Martinon to excel as he has?  Perhaps an even more perplexing question might be: Why do the school districts in the wealthier areas consistently outperform those in the poorer areas? As you might guess, I harbor a few reflections on this.

Regardless of other concerns, one factor is consistently ignored by the professional educator. It’s the ability and enthusiasm of the student. During my ten years as a classroom chemistry instructor at a community college, I made a profound discovery. My bright students who worked hard did well. Those bright students who slacked off, as well as not-so-bright students who worked diligently, managed to get by. Those students neither bright nor hard-working invariably failed. Neither the resources of the school nor my input as an instructor made much difference.

Based on my revelation, I’m now prepared to address the two questions I just posed. First, why does Noe Martinon do so well? It’s because he’s both bright and highly motivated. As for the motivation, the Lopez article also describes the encouragement both Noe’s father and mother gave him over the years. Obviously this has been a positive influence, but in the final analysis it’s the talent and perseverance displayed by Noe that leads to his success.

As to my second question, why the offspring of the well-to-do perform better than those of the less affluent, it’s not as readily answered. To begin with, I firmly believe the greater sums of money allocated to schools in the upper income districts are of no consequence whatever. In this regard, consider where educational money goes: salaries, administrative expenses, structural embellishments, self-aggrandizing projects and nonsensical hoopla of all sorts. Throwing wads of cash through a school doorway will not augment learning in any way. So, if not for the educational value of money, why do the children of the wealthy maintain higher grade point averages than those of the impoverished? I believe it’s because the more successful parents transmit to their progeny, through nature and nurture, those qualities which further facilitate success.

A concluding thought: Except for the names of the authors of the two newspaper columns and the dates they appeared, this article could be written one hundred years from now and be as timely as it is today. The fact is the school system is neither designed nor does it operate primarily to deliver an education to its students. Instruction in America is, at best, a peripheral goal of the public schools. In reality, the institution exists for the benefit of many diverse and conflicting groups including elected public officials, administrative hierarchy of the schools, the teachers and their representatives, non-credentialed employees, textbook publishers and distributors, and a host of groups and individuals too numerous to mention. Nothing will change until the educational authorities acknowledge learning is something done by the student, not to the student.

Al Jacobs, a professional investor for nearly a half-century, issues a monthly newsletter in which he shares his financial knowledge and experience. You may view it on http://www.roadwaytoprosperity.com

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