2.05.2006

What the Oakland A’s Can Teach Us About Improving Education in Our Cities

We had a very stimulating discussion in our church's morning service
today. The topic was public education, and since the discussion group
I was in was a mix of city and suburban folks and included a public
school teacher, you could guess that the conversation was impassioned
and animated. And you'd be right.

Public education is a heated topic in such circles because of the
perceived inequities between poor urban districts and rich suburban
districts. Let me try to paint some context before we get deeper into
the topic. In our country, we've decided that public education is a
good thing, worth supporting through government rather than just
letting the free market create its own buyers and sellers. Economists
call it a "positive externality," in that it has benefits to society
as a whole and not just to those who "consume" it. Because it is a
positive externality, absent government intervention we'd have too
little of it; in other words, if you and I had to decide whether or
not to educate our kids, and we had to foot the bill out of our own
pockets, there would be less of us opting into education than would be
optimal for our society. Thankfully, we've decided that public
education is a good thing, and so every citizen pays taxes so that
parents can send their kids to a public school without any additional
charges.

But this is where the inequities begin, because of course some
districts are better than others. The way it works in our country is
that education is a state responsibility, and states have decided to
devolve that responsibility to the local level. Therefore, from a
funding standpoint, districts raise money for education through
property taxes, and then states chip in the rest. Since some
districts are in richer neighborhoods than others, higher property
values means more taxes collected, all other things being equal, and
so even if states make up some of the difference by giving more to
poorer districts than richer districts, those poorer districts usually
end up with less to spend per student than the richer districts. In
many cases, those differences can mean thousands of dollars per
student per year.

And so this is where much of today's discussion picked up. What
should a just government do about such inequities? What about an
active church seeking to do God's will? Of course, these are complex
questions with no easy solutions. But let me try to unpack some of my
thoughts on the issue.

First, let us recognize that a lot of what makes America
simultaneously wonderful and frustrating is its twin allegiances to
the notions of liberty and equality. We love both concepts – would
die for them, really – and yet sometimes we forget that they are hard
to hold together. If our government works for peoples' liberty, it
must allow people to choose to be unequal. If our government works
for peoples' equality, it must restrict people from exercising
liberty. And so it is with our schools. Is our goal that all people,
all schools, all districts are exactly the same? Or is it that people
and schools and districts can do whatever they want? I would argue
that, just as we have to hold in tension our love for liberty and
equality, so we must avoid seeking a resolution with our schools that
is all one side or the other.

Let's also consider just how unfair our financial inequities are
between richer and poorer districts. Poorer districts often have more
special-needs kids, who require additional attention and therefore
additional cost. (As a result, many states have created extremely
complicated formulas based on such needs, so that state funds are more
correctly allocated according which districts need more money to serve
their kids.) Richer districts have an easier time raising new money
for education-related expenses, because 1) property tax increases are
relatively easier for their richer residents to bear, and 2) property
taxes are deductible on federal income tax returns, meaning that
residents in the highest tax bracket are really only spending 65 cents
for every dollar they chip in for new education-related expenses (in
contrast, residents in poorer neighborhoods might not be itemizing, so
every dollar they spend on education is costing them a dollar).
Finally, financial inequities within the same metropolitan region make
it harder for poorer districts to attract good teachers (because
richer districts can pay more) and, to the extent that more money for
education leads to a better education (more on this later), such
inequities make it harder for students from poorer districts to
compete for jobs and universities against their richer counterparts.

So what is an appropriate Christian response? And what role can and
should the government play in making this wrong right? As to possible
Christian responses, certainly I know people who don't know about all
this and couldn't care less. They're just happy they can send their
kids to good schools, and don't think a second that they are
participating in a system that is potentially grievously unjust.
Others are aware of these inequities and use them to their advantage,
even looking down on others who didn't work as hard as they did or
weren't as shrewd as they were or don't value education as much as
they do. Still others feel deeply about such matters, but when it
comes to their own kids, they've made a move to a better school
district, and they feel guilty about it. Some are good, honest public
school workers who bristle at such rhetoric because their schools are
portrayed as pathetic and decrepit. Some want to blow up the whole
system, centralize education financing, and make sure every school has
the same amount of money so that such inequities will never again
exist.

I come to this topic with a certain worldview and a certain political
bent. In my opinion, to begin with, Christians should care about
deeply such matters, because we alone have an eternal and communal
perspective. That is, we're not just looking out for the here and
now, and we're not just looking out for ourselves and our own. Who
else will think long-term when others are thinking short-term? Who
will stand up with the marginalized when others are standing up just
for themselves?

As for government's role, I don't think it is to impose choices upon
people. I'm not a die-hard advocate of school choice, to the extent
that it can take away from efforts to improve neighborhood schools,
but I do believe in the premise of giving parents choices. And some
parents will choose to move to the burbs, others to send their kids to
private or religious schools, and still others to band together to
form charter schools. Far be it from the government to do anything
but give families room to make sensible choices about how they want to
raise their kids. And shame on Christians who guilt their brethren
for "selling out," when all they're doing is what they think is best
for their kids.

Speaking of choice, kudos to the School District of Philadelphia for
initiating a number of interesting concept schools within its borders.
Like any entrepreneurial initiative, this is going to have its
detractors and it's going to have its duds. But it still ought to be
implemented and supported, so that more choice and more variety can
get injected into this equation.

I am a little embarrassed to say that as strong as I feel about my
faith and my politics, I feel almost as strongly about my sports
allegiances. And so it is appropriate that I close my rantings with a
word about the Oakland A's. Baseball, like public schools, is not
fair. Some teams have more money than others. Sometimes this is
because of geography / market size, sometimes because of shrewd /dumb
moves, and sometimes there is chicanery. Oakland is one of the poorer
teams. And yet, for the past several years, they've been able to
field a very competitive team. How? Like shrewd investors, A's
management has figured out inefficiencies in the market. They buy low
and sell high when it comes to players, and they play the game in such
a way as to maximize success with minimal salaries.

I think there is a lesson here for our discussion of public education.
It's fun to bash the New York Yankees for having so much money, but
is the solution to fairer baseball that every team have the same
amount of money? Absolutely not. Baseball has its redistributing
(the luxury tax and the minor league draft being the two biggest) just
like public education, but for the most part, rich teams can and do
get richer, and poor teams can and do get poorer. But it doesn't
preclude a poorer team from becoming a winner. After all, money isn't
everything, as the A's have proven.

Besides, parents are finding this out when it comes to education.
People who have moved to a school district that has twice as much
money per student than their old neighborhood find themselves
disillusioned that the extra money hasn't prevented their new schools
from having some of the same problems as their former ones. Even
worse, sometimes the extra money causes students to develop an
unhealthy sense of entitlement or snobbery. Other parents have sent
their kids to private school, only to find that didn't solve their
problems either.

In short, education is an important but complicated process. It
behooves us parents, wherever our kids are, to get involved in our
kids' schools and in their lives. It also behooves us parents,
especially those who say we are Christians, to make sure the way
school funding is set up promotes our twin ideals of liberty and
equality. We don't concede that "this is how it is, so let's just
make the best of it," because we ought to strive to reform systems
that aren't fair. But neither should we say that because some
districts have more money than others, we should blow up the whole
system and make sure everyone has the same amounts to work with.
After all, if we're the Oakland A's, our goal isn't to eliminate the
New York Yankees from being able to spend so much money in its front
office, it's to beat them on the field.

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