Posts Tagged funding equity

How Governments Abuse and Neglect Kids

Published by — Once again, adults battling to force cutbacks in charter schools are ignoring what’s best for students.

(Photo: George Hodan, Creative Commons)

When still young and blissfully naive, I was appointed to the Providence School Board.  I was sure my clever, well-informed interview with the outgoing Mayor had knocked it out of the park.  I later discovered I was merely a goad to the in-coming Mayor.  No big deal; I was there anyway, getting what I later called my PhD in urban education.

Within about six months I realized I’d stumbled into a nasty political power game.  Tax money was collected from the public in the name of educating kids, but then passed among the adult players.  The battles — legal, contractual, fiscal, regulatory — left the students themselves looking like the ball that rolls off the court while team players are having at each other.  The adults had lawyers, precedents and policies backing them.  The kids had no voice to speak of, and were, in my eyes, getting a super raw deal.  I left my old life and started working for them.

Perhaps the adults didn’t see how their actions affected kids.  Perhaps they didn’t care.  Likely, most would have argued that they cared deeply for students, but were powerless against the status quo.  During many years as an education journalist, I saw this same set of perverse priorities played out, from feds to states to local authorities.  Rhode Island is not unique.  Still.  Government officials should always be asking if their decisions will nurture the kids, no matter what the sector.  And Education has no excuse not to.

Public battles between adults over money and power hurt kids.

Fights that seem to be deliberately instigated are particularly pernicious.  Here’s what set me off this time:

Last fall Legislators convened a Commission to adjust the state’s funding formula for per pupil expenditure (ppe).  A state’s education funding formula is a mind-numbingly complex set of metrics designed to determine how much funding the state will assure each student.  The variables include special categories of students — those with special needs, English language learners, poverty — along with each municipality’s different ability to pay.  That’s a super-simple version.  A taste of the student-based complexities are here in appendix “B.”

Every state hates their funding formula.  None are perfect.  They balance scarce public dollars against a bazillion demands on each penny, so a funding formula is not something to be tweaked in a couple of months by a committee.

This Legislative Commission’s charge was to explore whether or not the regular district schools were getting their fair share, as compared with the public charter schools.  Ooo, red flag.  The real missions seemed designed to turn up the heat under the ever-simmering tensions between the charters and their traditional counterparts.  To add more tension to the game, any adjustments would have to be revenue neutral, meaning no new money on the table.  Zero-sum games inevitably create winners and losers.  Any change means some loser kids will take it in the neck.

RI’s per-pupil expenditure is 40% higher than the national average.  Its student performance is the lowest in New England.  (See here.)  But overall, the charters, with their 5.2% of the public-school population, are high performers, especially given that 80% of their kids are low-income and/or children of color.  They are not beloved by the districts.

Someone got this battle started, eyes wide open. 

The issues the adults are arguing about are real.  True, a disproportionate number of high-cost special-needs kids are in the district schools.  Also true: charters are reimbursed only 30% for their buildings and repairs while districts get 80%.  And so it goes, with this and that placed on each side of the scales, charter versus district.

But adding a weird element to this case, the Commission unearthed a surprise.  In 2014, the Department of Education started deviating from the funding formula by changing the math to give more money to the traditional districts.  The decline in charter funding is now up to $360 per kid.  Weirder still, the officials didn’t send the memo explaining to the charters that their funding was decreasing.  Now, added to that loss, the Commission decided to reduce the charter share by another $350 per pupil.  Suddenly most charters will have a structural deficit that will badly wound their programs.  The families of their kids are freaking out — and with good reason.

Per usual, depriving certain kids is being done in the name of fairness, equity and educational quality.  It’s bizarre that the Commission feels okay about doing this.  The easiest fix would have been to run the formula as enacted and take the issues to a more comprehensive Commission.  If that was going to take too long, find additional money to balance the scales without hurting kids.  And don’t say there’s no money.  Legislatures can always find money when they want.

Shame on the State for allowing this war.  End it.  And for heaven’s sake, stop doing this to the kids.  How come they always slip people’s minds?

(Photo: George Hodan, Creative Commons)


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.


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A Small Gesture Toward Spreading Higher Ed Wealth

Published by — As the richest universities get richer, taxpayers subsidize the inequity


Consider for a moment that almost 90 colleges and universities have endowments of a billion – that’s with a “B” — dollars or more. At 5% interest, a billion earns $50 million a year. Harvard, of course, is the big winner at nearly $37 billion, an amount so large that others have noted that the institution could stop charging tuition altogether and still be raking in dough.

I knew that part. But what I hadn’t considered is that when donors make a charitable donation to a billionaire college, they write the money off on their taxes. Therefore, as the rich colleges get richer, the taxpayers subsidize the inequity.

Higher ed and student debt are topics I generally leave to others, but I’ve been haunted by what seems like a doable, easily defended idea. To wit: end tax deductions for donations to rich universities. It’s brilliantly simple. The IRS has the data easily at hand, so a single regulation could disallow those institutions above the billion-dollar mark. Donors can still give money; they just can’t take it off their tax returns. No biggie. Any hue and cry against such a measure would be embarrassing to those protesting. The reg would hurt no one. Not even the rich universities. It would be a little drop of reason and kindness in a harsh and unfair world.

I got this idea from Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor and prolific writer. His recent opinion piece for USA Today, called “To reduce inequality, abolish Ivy League, went a little off the deep end. No one’s going to close Yale, or dictate any college’s admissions policies for the sake of social engineering or equality, as he suggests. But his push to end that tax break seems irrefutable.

A terrific education isn’t nearly as valuable as the networking.

Those in the know understand that it’s not the quality of education at Harvard, Stanford, or Princeton that prepares students to walk among the powerful. It’s the contacts they make, the friends cultivated for future deal-making, allies and lucrative marriages. It’s a rigged game. Very rich schools serve a disproportionately large number of very rich kids on their way to fame and fortune. If your kid got “C”s in high school while getting high with their romantic attachment, but you have the means to endow a wing on the art complex or a professorial chair, voila! The kid still gets the fat acceptance envelope at what is for everyone else one of the most competitive universities in the country.

A smart kid can get a terrific education at any number of less prestigious colleges, including excellent public institutions. She just won’t be rubbing elbows with the First Families.

Public colleges tend to have very small endowments at best. Their support comes mainly from state budgets, tuition and some donations. Because of the recent recession, states have been cash-strapped and skimping on support to higher education.

A deserving charity?

In his article, Professor Reynolds uses some of former Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s research. Reich says, “Private university endowments are now around $550 billion, centered in a handful of prestigious institutions. Harvard’s endowment is over $32 billion, followed by Yale at $20.8 billion, Stanford at $18.6 billion, and Princeton at $18.2 billion. Each of these endowments increased last year by more than $1 billion, and these universities are actively seeking additional support. Last year, Harvard launched a capital campaign for another $6.5 billion. Because of the charitable tax deduction, the amount of government subsidy to these institutions in the form of tax deductions is about one out of every $3 contributed.”

This means, therefore, that each kid at Princeton, say, is publicly subsidized, through tax deductions, roughly to the tune of $54,000. Their undergraduate population is about 5,000, so do the math. Likely a good number of the donors would still give money even without the write-off. Alternative, if knocking down a tax bill via donations is important to them, certain donors would give to a more worthy cause. One can always hope.

Granted, ending this tax subsidy would not so flood the federal coffers that Pell grants would overflow. Nor would the dynastic succession of certain powerful families stop. But the simplicity of the fix, which appeals to me, would make the rich universities work just a little harder at financial invincibility. It might provoke a conversation about how far higher education has strayed from the Horace Mann ideal of a leveled playing field for an educated citizenry. And how much it has become an ugly rigged game for those who have the upper hand in the first place.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Get Creative with Private School Vouchers

Published by —   Invite more private and parochial schools into the public-school fold by giving them charter-like status and accountability.

Surely the worst part of the recent Chicago Teachers strike is the ravaged landscape such battles leave behind.

Both sides in Chicago were fighting for stupid, last-century ideas like protecting seniority (union) and merit pay (management).  Headlines brayed; unions fought back: politicians ranted.  Most importantly, everyone modeled really ugly behavior for the kids.A distinct image of what it looks like when we’ve got it wrong.

It might look better if we all took a deep breath and opened our hearts to the potential virtues of private-school vouchers.

Forget the current debate.  Here’s the driving question:  “How can we give more students and families what they believe will work for them?”

Consider that private and parochial schools offer a menu of proven options that parents have been gladly willing to pay for.

Vouchers offer public money to help low-income parents pay private-school tuition.  And while I have three huge caveats — which I’ll get to — vouchers succeed at helping parents send their kids to schools of their choice.

Imagine how quickly some of the existing public money could bring life-blood back to a large number of desirable private and parochial schools now starving to death in this hideous economy.  Educational diversity is dying.  Steadier funding would strengthen these badly-needed community assets.

A terrific example of a system that got it right is the Edmonton School District, in Alberta, Canada.  Among the most highly-acclaimed in the world, this district has a dazzlingly-diverse menu of school options — private, parochial, charter and district schools.  Some schools are unionized, while others are full-on Catholic — if you don’t like Catholicism, don’t go.  But it’s your choice, not the government’s.

Yes, I know, Canada is not us.  They’re socialists (as is, by the way, the whole notion of public education), so Canada doesn’t count.  But let’s consider the opinion of 30 Delaware educators who visited Edmonton together.  They were so impressed, they used it as the model for the state’s educational strategic plan, “Vision 2015 Delaware.”  Delaware was one of only two grand-prize winners of the first round of Race to the Top.  (Tennessee was the other.)

The Delaware “Visionaries” write, “Students can choose from school programs that are bilingual, religious, cultural, subject-specific, pedagogical or single-gender.

Let many flowers bloom.

In 1995, Edmonton was faced with a new regional law permitting both charter schools and what we would call private-school vouchers.  Edmonton could have done nothing and watched its students leave.  Instead, the district created conditions to encourage the coexistence of all sorts of schools.  To entice the privates and charters into the fold, the district ceded control of curriculum, budget, hiring and school management.  But in exchange, Edmonton provides all schools with equitable public funding, including extras for special education and such.  They do the work of helping parents navigate the system, enrollment, transportation and what they call “continuity across schools,” or data-driven accountability.

So in the end, the tuition payments to the participating private schools weren’t exactly vouchers, but the local per-pupil expenditure paid to a private school.

So, Caveat #1:  Equity of funding.

Milwaukee has the oldest American voucher program dating back to the early 1990s, now serving about 20,000 students.  Their vouchers are only worth $6,500.  Nationally, the average per-pupil expenditure is $10,500, but in Wisconsin it’s over $11,000.  Milwaukee families living at or below 300 percent of poverty are eligible for the vouchers.  Where do really poor families get the extra money?

Fancy private schools aggressively raise money for scholarship programs specifically to diversify their student bodies.  Instead, these schools might prefer to make some of their seats available for a public lottery for income-eligible families.  The school would just have to make due with the local per-pupil expenditure, no matter what the tuition.

So, like charters schools, participating private schools should get the full per-pupil expenditure (ppe).

Caveat #2:  Equity of access.

Also like charter schools, students opting for available private school seats should be chosen by lottery.  No creaming off “easy” students.

Actually, Edmonton has some specialized schools that require entrance exams or auditions.  But given the district’s extremely high parent satisfaction, they’re clearly managing to provide equity of access.

Finally, Caveat #3:  Equity of accountability.

An equitable system would insist that all participating schools share their data publically.   Edmonton has few requirements of their schools, but those include collecting and reporting demographics, finances, test scores and the like.

American voucher systems have always been terribly unfair.  The state accountability systems scrutinize public schools, deem some failures, but give vouchers to private schools not held accountable by or to anyone.

These days many private schools could probably learn to live with accepting kids by lottery in exchange for steady funding.  The real deal-breaker might be cooperating with the data-and-reporting requirements.  Private schools take their own achievement tests that are specifically non-comparable with those in public schools.

We’ve long heard how much better the private schools are than the publics.  I challenge them to prove it.  Show me the data.  Honestly, I hope the privates are as good as they say and that they have lots more seats for low-income kids like Deval Patrick, Governor of Massachusetts, and President Barack Obama, both of whom were plucked from rough circumstances and given good educations.  That’s the point.  Make more such opportunities possible.

But do it in an equitable way.  Edmonton is a fabulous model of adults cooperating on behalf of the kids.

Chicago is not.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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