NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE N early every news article on the coronavirus and K–12 education has lamented that school closures and budget cuts are hitting low-income students the hardest. Earlier this month, a New York Times op-ed proposed an idea to address the educational consequences of the virus with “equity”: Hurt middle-class kids to help low-income kids.
The piece’s author, Rebecca Sibilia — the CEO of EdBuild, a school-funding-advocacy organization — argued that America has far too many school districts, and that the “more exclusively [district] borders are drawn, the more advantage accrues to wealthy districts, each of which has an independent financial structure, at the expense of the students next door.”
Out of America’s approximately 13,000 school districts, Sibilia juxtaposed two districts in Camden County, N.J. to illustrate the unfairness of the system: Gloucester City and Haddonfield Borough. In Gloucester City, the median property is worth about $120,000, “but four miles away in Haddonfield Borough a median home sells for $500,000. From this wealthy tax base, Haddonfield can raise $13,500 per student, four times higher than what can be collected in Gloucester City.”
New York Times readers might well be appalled at the inequity Sibilia described, but they would be thoroughly deceived regarding which way it actually operates: The more-affluent Haddonfield Borough spends $16,532 per student annually, while the less-affluent Gloucester City spends $27,276. Students in the poorer school district get more money because the state and federal government more than make up the difference in district-level tax revenue. And this is the norm, not the exception: A 2016 study by the center-left Urban Institute found that “almost all states allocate more per-student funding to poor kids than to nonpoor kids.”
America has achieved a progressive school-finance system primarily by raising sales and income taxes and earmarking the revenue for low-income school districts. But the proposal in the New York Times represents an entirely different approach: taking money directly out of some schools to give to others by combining local taxes into one revenue pool.
Combining and redistributing local revenue on an even per-pupil basis between Haddonfield and Gloucester City would lead to a nearly $13 million wealth transfer from the school district that already spends less to the school district that already spends more, lowering annual per-pupil spending to $12,000 in Haddonfield while raising it to about $33,000 in Gloucester City.
Parents in Haddonfield would have every right to be utterly outraged by this proposal. After all, they worked hard. They played by the rules. They tried to do right by their children. They paid a housing- and a property-tax premium to send their kids to good schools in a community that they chose and helped to build. An older generation of liberals would have respected their choices, their accomplishments, and their community while asking them to pay a little bit more in sales tax to help students in disadvantaged neighborhoods. But today’s social-justice-minded education reformers believe that it is necessary and proper to punish Haddonfield kids for the sake of “equity.”
The notion that Haddonfield and Gloucester are different communities with different identities and values, and that they might want to preserve the character of their respective schools, does not, it seems, count for much in the calculus of today’s reformers.
The good news is that parents should not be terribly concerned about this proposal. State legislators are accountable to their constituents, and even in a time of great budgetary flux they likely won’t want to have to justify a vote to dole out extra hurt to some schools.
But it is still worth taking the proposal seriously for what it represents: a shift in the meaning of the term “equity.” Until not very long ago, “equity” meant trying to close the achievement gap by helping struggling students. Now, from efforts to cancel gifted education to training teachers to regard bourgeois values as tantamount to “white supremacism” to not teaching any students for fear that some will not learn to attacking the budgets of middle-class schools, it increasingly means something else: bringing the top down rather than the bottom up.