By MICHAEL A. REBELL and JESSICA R. WOLFF
Published: August 25, 2011
EARLIER this month, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced that he and five other wealthy individuals had raised $1.5 million to reinstate the January Regents exams, which New York State had canceled because of budget cuts.
Although praiseworthy as a matter of personal philanthropy, the donation by the mayor and the others, whose names were not disclosed, is highly distressing as a matter of public policy. It is disgraceful that essential components of our public education system now depend on the charitable impulses of wealthy citizens.
At least 23 states have made huge cuts to public education spending this year, and school districts are scrambling to find ways to cope. School foundations, parent-teacher organizations and local education funds supported by business groups and residents contribute at least $4 billion per year to help public schools throughout the country.
In New York City, families and philanthropies are asked to pay for classroom supplies and music and art lessons. In Lakeland, Fla., a church provided $5,000 worth of supplies for an elementary school’s resource room, and paid for math and English tutors. The board of the Los Angeles Unified School District voted in December to accept corporate sponsorships and to allow the placement of corporate logos on cafeteria walls and in ball fields.
Many schools that have already reduced hours, increased class sizes and eliminated electives are also now charging fees for workbooks, use of lab equipment and other basic instructional materials; extracurricular activities long considered essential are now available only to students who can afford them.
In Medina, Ohio, The Wall Street Journal reported, it now costs $660 for a child to play on a high school sports team, $200 to join the concert choir and $50 to act in the school play. High school students in Overland Park, Kan., pay a $120 “activity programming fee” and a $100 “learning resources fee.” In Naperville, Ill., they are charged textbookand workbook fees, even for basic requirements like English and French, according to The Chicago Tribune.
In some cases, students from impoverished backgrounds are exempted from these payments if the class is required, but must pay for Advanced Placement courses or sports and other extracurricular activities. If they can’t pay, they miss out.
Public education was built on the philosophy articulated by Horace Mann, the Massachusetts reformer who pioneered the Common School: a system “one and the same for both rich and poor” with “all citizens on the same footing of equality before the law of land.” Today, that vision of equality is in jeopardy.
As anti-union sentiment continues to spread, politicians may wrongly assume that education cutbacks mainly affect the salaries and benefits of teachers. In reality, it is the students who pay the dearest price. Some California districts have reduced the number of days in the school year; in Miami, 4,500 students will be deprived of after-school programs this year; Texas has cut pre-kindergarten programs for 100,000 children. The poor are, unsurprisingly, disproportionately affected: Pennsylvania’s education cuts amounted to $581 per student in the poorest 150 school districts, but only $214 per student in the wealthiest 150 districts.
Not every state will have a Bloomberg to step in, not every school has a P.T.A. with the resources to help out, and not every child has a family that can afford fees. Depending on private contributions is inequitable and unconstitutional; public financing should fully support public education.
Most state constitutions, in fact, guarantee all students a sound, basic public education. These constitutional rights cannot be put on hold, even in tough times. It is unconstitutional to call on parents to pay for textbooks and lab fees for required courses. And art, music, sports, basic educational support services and many extracurricular activities that promote learning, creativity and character are not luxuries; they, too, are essential features of a sound, basic education.
California acknowledged as much last December when it settled a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union challenging illegal school fees. Officials ordered school districts to halt the practice and to refund the fee money they had collected. While schools in California now must eliminate textbook and activity fees, affluent children whose parents can afford to reinstate teaching positions will continue to have more educational opportunities than their poorer counterparts.
A number of judges have begun to respond to the devastation in state education financing: in May, the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered Gov. Chris Christie and the Legislature to reinstate $500 million in funds for poor urban districts, and last month, a North Carolina judge blocked cuts that would have decimated financing for a statewide preschool program.
The courts are doing their job, but litigation is time-consuming and expensive. Politicians have a constitutional obligation to protect public education. They need to ensure that adequate public funds are available, and the people need to hold them accountable for doing so.