In school districts, low-income children will always lose the battle for resources

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Editor’s note: Doug Tuthill responds today to a post I wrote yesterday about the failure of school districts and teachers unions to enact meaningful differential pay plans for teachers – and how that’s indicative of a bigger failure to help low-income students.

Ron, you raised some excellent points in your blog post about the unwillingness of the Pinellas County, Fla. school district to provide each student with equal access to a quality education. For nine years, I received supplemental pay to work in a magnet program that served the district’s academic elite, and for 11 years I was a leader in the local teachers union, which was complicit in the district’s refusal to provide equal opportunity. So your criticisms stung, but they were accurate.

This may be self-serving, but I’m convinced the cause of this leadership failure is not bad people, but an organizational structure and culture that favors the politically strong over the politically weak.

Growing up in Pinellas, I attended segregated public schools. When the federal courts finally forced the school district to desegregate, the focus was on ratios and not learning. The district closed most of the black neighborhood schools and bused those children to schools in the white neighborhoods because busing white students into black neighborhoods was too politically difficult. But white flight meant some forced busing of white students was necessary, so the district created a rotation system that bused low-income/working class white students every two years to schools where the black population approached 30 percent.  (The court order said no Pinellas school could be more than 30 percent black.)

While working-class white neighborhoods lacked the political clout to prevent their children from being bused every two years, their protests were loud enough to force the school board to look for alternatives. In the early 1980s, the district started creating magnet programs to entice white families to voluntarily attend schools that were in danger of exceeding the 30 percent threshold.

These magnet programs were designed to provide white students with a superior education. Class sizes were small, textbook and materials budgets seemed unlimited, professional development opportunities were extraordinary and special pay supplements to attract the best teachers were impressive. In my case, when I quit my job as a college professor to teach in the International Baccalaureate (IB) at St. Petersburg High School (SPHS), my annual salary increased 28 percent.

The magnet strategy worked – especially the IB program. Affluent white families began voluntarily busing their children to attend our program, and in many cases students got on buses at 5 a.m. and rode over 50 miles per day to attend.

Unfortunately, desegregation via magnet schools increased the resource inequities that desegregation was suppose to reduce.

My future (and current) wife taught in the “traditional” program at SPHS, and the contrast between our classes was striking. I taught in Deborah’s classroom during her planning periods. While she regularly had 38 students in her basic math classes, I averaged about 13 in my philosophy classes. Her classes were about 50 percent black, and I don’t recall ever having more than one or two black students in my classes. In fact, I’m sure black students historically comprise only a tiny percentage of the IB graduates at SPHS.

My professional development included flying to Chicago for a week to discuss how best to teach epistemology to high school students, while Deb’s involved sitting in a crowded room in Largo, Fla. hoping the clock would speed up.

When I left the IB program to become the Pinellas teachers union president in 1991, I sat down with the St. Petersburg Times education reporter at the time, Anne Lindberg, and gave a long interview on how desegregation should focus on reducing the achievement gap between black and white students, and not only on school-wide racial ratios. I also asserted that magnet schools were making the achievement gap worse because of the unequal distribution of resources.

To say the district responded badly to this interview would be an understatement. The superintendent and school board were outraged by my suggestion that higher black student achievement should be part of the district’s desegregation plan. They argued that desegregation was about ratios and not student learning. The superintendent had the district’s research department prepare a set of reports showing the district’s achievement gap was related to poverty, and not race. And since the district was not responsible for poverty, the district could not be responsible for the achievement gap caused by poverty.

Beyond interviews and speeches, I never did anything concrete during my four years as union president to address the district’s achievement gap. I should have done more, but back then, beyond a small nonprofit in Washington D.C. called the Education Trust, no one was talking about the achievement gap. It took a crusade by Gov. Jeb Bush 10 years later to put this issue on the front burner in Florida, and many still despise him for it to this day.

The Pinellas teachers union leaders who followed me have been more aggressive in raising the achievement gap issue with the school district, and have proposed supplemental pay plans for teachers working in high-poverty schools. But there are so many political forces within the union and the larger school district competing for resources that low-income children always get pushed aside.

School districts are politically-controlled monopolies in which power is centralized and every decision is a political decision. In this context, poor people are always going to lose the battle for resources. Most of the politically elite in our community have sent their children to the IB program at SPHS, including the mayor and the publisher of our newspaper. Any superintendent or school board member who proposes taking the IB teachers’ supplemental pay and giving it to teachers in high-poverty schools will soon be unemployed.

If public education is to fulfill the promise of equal opportunity, we need to create a structure in which political power is not the primary determiner of how resources get allocated. That’s why I support school choice for low-income and working-class parents. Empowering these parents to match their children with the schools that best meet their needs is not a silver bullet, but it is a necessary step on the road to equal opportunity.

6 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t question your expertise as it pertains to Pinellas County Schools, but the title of your post is way off the mark. PCS has over 100,000 students and 140 schools spread across a large metropolis. It is the 26th largest district in the nation. This makes it a very atypical district considering that most districts consist of far fewer schools, students and municipalities and cover a much smaller geographic area.

    Smaller districts are much more capable of providing a uniform educational experience to all of their students. A smaller district is much more manageable in this regard. Fewer students, fewer schools, and a less-sprawling geographic area decrease the likelihood of an inequitable distribution of resources within the district. The board members are “from the neighborhood,” not from across town or across the county. It would be more accurate to title this post “In bloated, big city schools districts, low-income children will always lose the battle for resources.” Perhaps these overlarge districts need to be broken up into smaller districts that will actually have a vested interest in and be accountable to the people in their immediate vicinity. That’s what a public school district is supposed to be and that’s exactly what most smaller ones are. Why use an atypical example as an excuse for blowing up an entire system that works just fine when properly executed on an appropriate scale?

  2. Anonymous, thanks for your comment.

    I agree an institution’s size is relevant. For example, many of our scholarship families are attracted to private schools because they tend to be much smaller than district schools. But in the context of the relationship between political power and resource allocation, I think my thesis holds for large and small school districts. I use to work with small school districts in rural North Carolina. The poor people in those districts felt underserved, and they thought their lack of political clout was a contributing factor.

    However, I am open to being wrong. If you’d like to name a few small districts where you think resource allocation is not influenced by political power, then I’d be happy to examine those districts and report back my findings.

  3. Mr. Tuthill,

    Since the title of your post referred to “school districts” in general, I feel it is incumbent upon you to provide examples of districts both large and small that support your thesis rather than citing only one unusually large district. Again, I don’t dispute that the problem you are describing is probably true in a good number of large, metropolitan districts. However, small districts with a just couple dozen schools and a few thousand students are, by their very nature, different than big-city districts in two crucial ways:

    1) The board members are closely and directly connected with the neighborhoods they represent, reducing the odds that they will willfully neglect certain schools within the district.

    2) Due to simple geographic proximity, it is less likely that there will be “rich” and “poor” schools or “white” and “minority” schools in a small district. When a district is so large as to include many distinct racial and economic enclaves spread across numerous municipalities, politicians then have the opportunity to play favorites based on those racial and economic factors. It becomes much easier to neglect those people “over there” because the decision-makers are so far removed from the people being neglected. Shrink the districts and you shrink the opportunity for political malfeasance to occur.

  4. Just to be clear, we both want to achieve the same ends here. But I think that when you broadly criticize the concept of public schools based upon one atypical example, you risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Many traditional districts provide exactly what you seek: equal access to a quality education, options for students with unique learning needs and accountability/responsiveness to parents and their communities. Let’s not lump the good districts in with the broken ones.

  5. Anonymous—Thanks again for your thoughtful comments. Upon further reflection, I think you’re right. I should have been more precise. The politics in a North Dakota district with one K-12 school serving 180 students is much different than in the Miami-Dade district, which enrolls about 350,000 students in a diverse cultural milieu.

    But I still think my key assertion is valid: public education would be more effective if low-income parents had more power. My rationale is based on my belief that a more egalitarian distribution of power, when properly managed, leads to better decisions. By decentralizing some decision making power, school choice, when properly implemented, will lead to a more democratic—and therefore more effective—public education system.

  6. You’re welcome and thank you. I liked the John Wilson piece. He did a better job than I could of articulating some of my thoughts on this topic.

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