At a rally in Cleveland last July, a few days after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision upholding Cleveland’s school voucher program, President Bush remarked that when September 2002 came around, some 3.5 million children (most of them living in the shabbiest sections of big cities) would find themselves stuck in failing public schools. “One of my jobs,” the president said, “is to make sure that we continue to insist upon reform.”
It turned out, however, that Mr. Bush would have little on his mind this year except the war against Iraq. All the same, the business of rescuing those children caught in a cycle of poverty need not have been forgotten. After all, the three levels of government nationwide share responsibility for funding a reform plan that will, after decades of neglect, finally give inner-city students schools that work.
Congress will not be the chief architect of that reform, because the federal government provides only about 7 percent of the revenue for public elementary and secondary schools. But Congress does appropriate all federal monies. It could, therefore, not only reject Mr. Bush’s clamor for a 10-year program of tax cuts, but also conclude that a nation rich enough to wage a war in Iraq, costing according to present estimates at least $80 billion, can afford to raise taxes in order to help support genuine school reform.
The 50 states and their local municipalities must be the chief engineers of that reform. Some 40 percent of the money that supports public education is raised, usually by property taxes, at the local level. The remainder comes from the states and is distributed according to a per capita formula designed to allow each district to provide its students with a basic education.
In fact, this system leaves the schools of poor districts grossly underfunded when compared with the schools of rich suburbs that have plenty of valuable, taxable property. The California Supreme Court, in the case Serrano v. Priest (1971), pointed to the injustice of this procedure: “Affluent districts can have their cake and eat it too; they can provide a high quality education for their children while paying lower taxes. Poor districts, by contrast, have no cake at all.”
For several reasons, a school reform that will eliminate these inequities is very unlikely. To begin with, most citizens are fairly satisfied with things as they are. It is true that polls regularly show that voters give top priority to the improvement of schools, but there are no demonstrations in the streets for tax increases that will pay for substantial changes. Most middle- and upper-income families are reasonably content with their children’s schools, public or private.
Families in poor communities are not satisfied with their neighborhood schools, but there is little they can do about that. Often enough, these are single-parent families living below the poverty level and quite without political clout. The education bill that Mr. Bush signed last year was supposed to give children in decrepit schools the option of transferring to better ones in other sectors, but so far this has been largely an illusion. Those better schools regularly say they have no empty seats and cannot accept transfers.
When the class day is over in the suburbs, many children are chauffeured by their mothers to soccer and basketball practice, to music and dancing lessons, to photography workshops and play rehearsals. For the 3.5 million children of whom Mr. Bush spoke in Cleveland, there is no similar coalition of supplementary agencies. It is not only their schools that fail them but also their homes and neighborhoods.
Right now, the prospect of offering those children a schooling that will serve as an escalator to a better way of life is totally dismal. At least 36 states, along with many big cities like New York, are facing enormous deficits and will be cutting, not expanding education funds.
For his part, President Bush can rebut the charges that he is neglecting problems at home by saying that he has to concentrate on national security. That argument has a certain appeal. On the Feb. 7 broadcast of “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer,” David Brooks, the witty conservative commentator, said he does not want the president focusing on domestic policies at this moment: He has to win a war.
There is, however, a lesson to be learned here from the example of Great Britain nearly 60 years ago. While the British were still fighting World War II, their Parliament passed the Education Act of 1944, an epochal measure that restructured the United Kingdom’s school system. It is not too much to say that if the job of school reform in American cities continues to be deferred in order to pay for a pre-emptive war in Iraq, there will be casualties of that war in Harlem, Chicago and Los Angeles as well as in Baghdad.