Public-school finance, as a topic of concern, reminds us that the egalitarian impulse lives on imperishably. Mankind must be hard-wired to scratch the ears of the perceived—generally self-defined—underdog, before siccing him on the perceived top dog.
Public schools, financed with public monies, were probably overdue their share of the action; but, boy, are they catching up.
Consider this tidbit several months back from the Dallas Morning News: “The Highland Park Independent School District asked parents and community members this month to raise $900,000 in individual contributions to pay for a 3 percent teacher raise. The fund-raiser may be the first time a Texas school district has used donations to pay for a core element of its operating budget, state school finance authorities say. Under the state’s [property tax] recapture system, the Highland Park district is required to send $52.5 million from its 2001-02 budget for redistribution to poorer districts.”
The district’s plight—which has worsened in recent months—stems from a financial whammy put on “property wealthy” districts a few years ago at the behest of “property poor” districts seeking bigger bucks. First, in 1993, the Texas Supreme Court found the school-finance system—the normal mix of state and local dollars, though with the state share in decline—unconstitutional. Legal and political maneuvers ensued. At length, with Supreme Court approval, a brand-new system emerged, known as “Robin Hood.” No legislative act was ever more appropriately dubbed. It robs the “rich” and gives to the “poor.” Why? Don’t ask silly questions. Because the “rich” are rich, and the “poor” are poor.
Oh—and because the “poor” tend to outvote the “rich”: meaning it’s very, very hard to palliate such a situation.
With hardly any effort at all, you could forget that the whole affray centers, supposedly, on education. The idea behind Robin Hood is the equalization of educational opportunity through the equalization of wealth. The idea overrides competing considerations, such as the right to the use the resources you have, with some effort and foresight, managed to amass. Wherever you got your money, you can be relied on to supply more.
Well, can’t you?
Not so easily as it might seem. Highland Park—I am honor-bound to note that I have lived in the district for 28 years, and that both my children were educated there—has the money to give the teachers their raise; but, under Robin Hood, pressures increase yearly, as the law forbids a district to tax more than $1.50 per $100 of assessed valuation. Already giving away 50 to 60 percent of locally raised revenues, the “wealthy” districts must give more and more as property values continue to rise. The more they make, the more they lose. Ah, sweet land of liberty!
In the spring, Highland Park, 99 percent of whose graduates go to college, announced faculty cuts for the fall. Districts with considerably fewer resources than the original 51 “donor” districts worried as they approached donor status themselves. A select committee of legislators and citizens is investigating remedies.
The state legislature is believed incapable of action before its 2005 session. But, then, what if it were ready now? Would it rise to smite the thief of Sherwood? Since the legislature loosed the thief in the first place, this seems unlikely; unlikelier still, given the way legislative leaders define the problem as a “shortage of tax revenues.” Everyone knows what we do to cope with a scarcity of tax revenue: We raise taxes. It would take a constitutional amendment to enact a state income tax, but just such an effort is surely forthcoming, despite the lugubrious and certainly counterproductive consequences of such a move.
Or is that looking at the matter through the wrong lens? Education may not be the point here. The point may be just plain old leveling; leveling for the hell of it, with the excuse of “improving” education, sure, but leveling in the main because the leveler, looking out on the unlevel ranks of humanity, is traditionally shocked. He doesn’t like it. He wants to change it.
What annoys levelers sometimes even more than pecuniary inequalities is mental and intellectual ones. If the good Lord gave all men and women equal intellectual powers and equal supplies of git-up-and-git, He has kept it a deep dark secret. The creed of the leveler is that lack of “opportunity” accounts for inequalities. Smooth out the opportunities, and we’ve got it made. The notion has been field-tested in the Gulag and—another kind of prison—the public schools, but somehow things don’t quite work out. Quotas, the downgrading of standards, and the redistribution of resources are strongly indicated answers.
We’re instructed these days to avoid irony, but it keeps popping up anyway. The sublime educational irony is that the public schools were conceived as a leveling institution—and not entirely for ignoble reasons, be it said. (The state saw a duty in the nurture of the unnurtured.)
Today, no small number of public schools—maybe a majority—show themselves adept at leveling or minimizing intellectual achievement. Yet it’s not enough, somehow. With more money—tax money, naturally—the levelers could pay back the aspiring and talented for the social crime of exhibiting aspiration and talent. Which might fix the public schools once and for all, because then no one would attend them but those singled out by the state for uplift. Ex malo bonum, as the old saying goes.