How California’s Growing Income Gap Affects Our Schools

Posted on 29 January 2014

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By Peter Mathews

An American child’s chance of acquiring a quality education depends more on the parents’ income than on almost anything else, including ethnicity.

Because property taxes are a key source for K-12 funding, affluent districts have more to spend on education. Low-income districts don’t have the resources and facilities necessary to help most of their students achieve their potential. Governor Jerry Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula is a small step in the right direction. But even with it, the affluent Shoreline Unified School District in Marin County will spend around $18,000 per pupil, while less affluent Long Beach Unified will spend around $9,000. Lynwood Unified School District will spend even less. Money isn’t everything, but an adequate amount is necessary.

That’s why the growing income gap between the super rich and the average worker in America (40 to 1 in 1980, 400 to 1 today) is devastating to our schools and society. Let’s compare two Long Beach high schools.

The higher income levels of Wilson High School parents produce an environment which enables their children to do better in school. It helps a lot when your parents have more income to put you in private music, ballet and tutoring classes, and more time to help with your homework. Jordan High School parents love their kids just as much and want the best for them, yet their generally lower incomes and tougher work schedules make it harder for their children to climb the educational and economic ladder. Of course there are exceptions: a low income child may occasionally succeed by overcoming major hurdles because one parent stays home and is able to tutor and mentor her or him, while the other parent works grueling hours at two or three jobs to make ends meet. Or one grandparent is still at home to help. This is increasingly difficult because, with the outsourcing of jobs and depressing of wages, both parents — and even the grandparents — have to work overtime to survive!

Academic achievement scores and graduation rates at Wilson far surpassed those at Jordan.

Education budgets have eliminated resources and classes across districts. But low and middle income ($50,000 per household and less) districts have been hit the hardest. Those parents don’t have the time and resources to compensate for the overall decrease in funding and cuts in programs.

A few months ago, I was walking my infant daughter in her stroller in our Long Beach Belmont Heights neighborhood. As I turned the corner, I saw a lemonade stand run by a mother, her children, and friends. I thought mom was training successful entrepreneurs!

Then I read the sign that said, “Lemonade for Fremont Elementary. Please support our fabulous science and computer labs!!” Another sign said, “Thank you Mrs. Phelps for your donations of lemons !!” I wanted to help so I bought a couple of glasses.

The mother at the stand told me that for the last several years, the parents in the Fremont Elementary neighborhood had raised approximately $100,000 annually to help keep open the labs threatened by state-wide budget cuts. How many lemons does it take to raise $100,000? Not enough, and so the parents from this affluent neighborhood had to raise and donate their own money; parents like Keith and Karen Vescial, whose son Evan attends Fremont Elementary. Keith called this “a hybrid form of private/public education.” Keith went on to tell me “in communities that can’t or won’t raise or donate private money, the kids suffer.”

I wondered how many parents in the low-income Lynwood Unified School District and the low-income neighborhoods of Long Beach could raise $100,000 annually to save their school’s science lab? Not many. And I wondered how many science and computer labs in Marin County’s super wealthy Shoreline Unified School District were in danger of being shut down. Probably none!

We must reduce income inequality, by creating well-paying jobs, to enable families to provide the environment and resources to help their children flourish.

The gap in income and wealth between the super rich and the rest of Americans has been widening due to the stagnation of wages, and tax policies that benefit super-rich individuals and corporations. Because super-wealthy individuals and corporations receive tax reductions and loopholes from politicians they funded, education gets cut. So it’s no surprise why California is near the bottom nationally in K-12 education!

For all to achieve the American Dream we must change direction!

This article was originally published at L.A. Progressive.

If I can, I'll append or attach an excerpt from a 2013 appellate case which provides a useful historical backdrop. It is California Redevelopment Association v. Matosantos (2013)
212 Cal.App.4th 1457, 1466-67.

Preliminarily, I should caution that I offer these commends solely as an individual and not on behalf of any government entity.

Briefly, as you may know, in 1971 the California Supreme Court invalidated local control over property taxes on the grounds that the resulting disparity of funds for public schools violated the equal protection guarantee. For the intervening 43 years, generally courts have accepted incremental progress toward that goal -- the old "halfway to the door" paradox. Now, Gov. Brown's reforms are designed, in part, to finish that project over the next eight years -- provided the economy holds up. (In addition, of course, those reforms seek to direct more funds where the pupil population indicates greater needs.) Thus, after 51 years the State may finally be in compliance with equal protection.

The article, however, quite correctly focuses on the effects of volunteer spending that are now probably the greatest source of disparities among districts. It is in effect George H.W. Bush's "thousand points of light" that uses volunteerism and so-called charity to recreate the old inequalities. (That alone should have cast doubt over "W"'s largely failed education reforms.) Unless the public has the will to force all volunteer contributions to be redistributed, the primary factor in unequal education -- and other inequalities that limit education's impact -- is wealth concentration and disparity. That is why I agree with the author's choice of emphasis. Remedies beyond "job creation" include progressive taxation, restrictions on charitable deductions that benefit local education only, expansion of the earned income tax credit, and various other reforms we won't see coming out of any Congress like the current one.

Here's the history as summarized by the Court of Appeal:

California Redevelopment Association v. Matosantos
212 Cal.App.4th 1457,1466-67 [152 Cal.Rptr.3d 269]

I used to sit on a school board in Ohio. It was very interesting. Much of what you say represents common myths. Let us look at them, one at a time:

Schools with more money do better. Actually, study after study has shown this not to be true. When I was on the school board, academic performance between $3000 to $9000 per head was essentially the same. In fact, if you look at the catholic schools, their academic achievement far exceeded public schools and usually on half the money.

Why is this so? Because the real determinants are stable parents and leading by example. Rich kids tend to do better not because of money. Rather, it is because they tend to come from stable families. Parents who raise them with expectations of success. As a practical matter, those kids who were problematic almost always came from the local trailer park and were being raised by single mothers.

The volunteering parents are successful not because of the money they raise but because of the example they set. Their efforts are showing their children that school matters and that they expect their children to perform.

In the final analysis, throwing more money at schools won't work. It will increase the number of administrators and their pay, but it won't help the kids.