Sunday, March 6, 2011

Some Students Cost More to Educate than Others (1)

In the last year or so, as we confront a financial crisis in public education, it has become popular to attempt find an easy fix that will make our problems disappear as if by magic. From time to time I hear people advance the idea that we could solve our education finance troubles quite simply if we would suddenly declare that "all children cost the same to educate." This thesis has a simplistic appeal. All children are worth the same in the eyes of God and country, are they not? So why should we then spend more on some children than others, the thesis goes? This thesis is especially popular, of course, in localities that are receiving less state funding per student than others, because their schools enroll far fewer students deemed costly to educate. Wouldn't it be really simple, they argue, if we would simply move all of the "extra" funding that goes to the districts with students who have higher educational needs, and "equalize" it so everyone is treated the same. The result would be a significant increase in funding for the districts with less costly students, and wreak havoc on the others.

Now before you start writing your conservative-liberal driven comments on this topic, I want to point out that the thesis that some children are more expensive to educate than others is NOT a liberal or conservative idea. In fact, one of the most aggressive advocates for properly funding children based on true cost to educate is the conservative think-tank Thomas Fordham Institute, The Thomas Fordham Institute is a some-time proponent of vouchers and other conservative education reforms. One of the critical components of a voucher-based system, or any system that assures that all students can reach proficiency, the Institute argues, is that we must provide funds in accord with the educational needs of the children being served. Recognizing that different students need different levels of educational support is not a liberal idea, it is plain common sense.

In its 2006 Report, Fund the Child, the Institute argues: "Although we may wish that achieving this [proficiency] goal were easy for every student, numerous studies have shown that some students require more resources than others:
  • Some start behind because their lives prior to school did not provide them with the same educational opportunities as other children.
  • Some home circumstances present problems related to health, nutrition, parental support, and other conditions, all of which materially impact children’s performances.
  • Some have disabilities that lead them to require additional education services and attention.
  • Some are from homes where English is not the primary language.
  • Some are recent immigrants who had little formal education in their home countries"
The advocates for vouchers recognize, then, that in order for public schools to be effective, or in order for private and parochial systems to run effective voucher-based programs to educate the hard to educate, the State must provide greater funding for the students who cost the most.

As parents, we know that some of our children seem to thrive at school effortlessly, and some require tremendous extra assistance at school and at home. We put "Pat the Bunny" in front of one of our children, and almost as if by magic, it seems, they are reading at an early grade. But a second child, raised in the same home, by the same parents, with the very same level of dedication to learning, doesn't catch on until years later than the other. One child needs almost no encouragement from the teacher, the other desperately needs it. As parents, we don't say, "all of my children are equal, so I'm not going to give any more help to one of my children than the other." In fact, we know that when we love our children equally, it means that we give each the amount of help that they need to thrive. We discover as well, that often the children who needed extra help in school, nonetheless thrive and may later even equal or excel as compared to the sibling who seemed to thrive effortlessly in elementary school.

And if it is true that our children need different levels of help to thrive even though they are raised in the same home, it stands to reason with greater force that children raised in radically different environments, with very different obstacles to surmount, are going to need greater or lesser supervision, instruction and mentoring. The goal of proficiency for all students is not attainable if we refuse to recognize that some children cost more to educate than others.

That point is punctuated by the support for "funding the child" differently in accordance with cost to educate by the proponents of public voucher support. Private schools could not and would not accept the challenge of educating all children who come to them unless they received an elevated funding allocation for the children who cost the most to educate. We cannot expect public schools to do so either. Indeed, when we hear advocates from communities with very small populations of hard-to-educate children, they seldom advocate that they should get their share of the costly students along with the extra funding. Very few of these advocates would make that trade, because they know, in fact, that Minnesota's current funding system actually under-funds the hard-to-educate. They would not regard it as an acceptable solution to get the extra funding and the students who cost more along with it.

This is a complicated subject. If some students cost more to educate, how much more? How do we know that the extra money for costlier students is being used efficiently? How do we know that we are getting our money's worth? I'll try to discuss that in a future post.

No comments:

Post a Comment

comments welcome