I was reading some of the positions on issues of political candidates, including the internet darling, Ron Paul. One of the bellweathers for me is education, and how we fund it in this country. So I thought it was high time to discuss this openly, and hear what you think on the issue.

In most States, education is funded by a property tax system. Usually it’s a millage system or something similar. This means if you live in a community with expensive real estate, the school district will have more funds; if you live in a less costly area, there will be less money for the schools. Cities can have it hard as well, since things like Hospitals and Churches are often exempt from these taxes. Sometimes businesses get tax preferences, and this also can throw off the tax base to pay for education.

If we assume better funding means better resources, and then in turn, more competition for the teacher positions, you may also get “better” teachers as well in these resource rich schools. Better salaries, better facilities, more money available for special projects, etc. This means that, on average, you get better schools, in theory, where the more “expensive” homes are, and thus suburbs tend to have better funded schools than cities, allegedly making them more attractive, feeding the cycle of people moving away from cities and into the suburbs. (We can talk about sprawl and environmental impact on another post.)

Many political candidates, usually middle to upper class folks, support vouchers. This would mean you could take some money, perhaps a portion of your tax dollars for education, and apply it towards tuition at private or parochial schools. This is looked at as providing public schools with incentive to improve, so they compete in a free market for students. This sounds great to many people, but I have some major probelms with this including:

1. Education is not a commodity like pork bellies. While we may go out there and purchase education at independent private schools, education is not a truly competitive marketplace, like Ebay. For one, we are just starting to scratch the surface on what a “quality education” means, and we have, at best, weak markers for success. In interviewing kids for the University of Pennsylvania as an alumni, I see college bound teens from public and private schools, and can tell you there are gems and duds in both categories. The school alone does not make the student. It’s far more complex than that. What the school probably does do is afford more or less opportunities for exposure to different experiences, but much of that also comes from a student’s home life.

2. Education is less like a widget, and more like long term R & D. Human development is a linear process. Learning to read, write and do math are part of our system, but we don’t see the outcome of tweeks in a system or a curriculum immediately, or within the next quarter. We do see outcomes often several years after the fact.

Take the old Whole Language versus Phonics debate. It turned out that many of the kids that learned to read by the “whole language” only approach ended up having real problems in Middle School and beyond, versus kids who learned to read through an integrated program and approach. In fact, there are “special” reading programs like Wilson Reading that’s used at Landmark College to take students from reading at a seventh grade level up to college level in a very short period of time. That begs the question why we don’t use this approach in every school across the land to teach reading to everyone, but that is a debate we can have another day as well.

As a long term investment, education gives you sporadic results, inconsistent results, and we shouldn’t be surprised, because we are producing people, not widgets. The long term results matter, and the minute by minute measurements don’t tell you alot about the bigger picture.

3. The Education System takes Everybody. Just like most hospitals, the education system takes everyone who loves in the area. They have to. There’s no options. This means schools have to adapt to the changing demographic patterns of its area, changing economic tides- they are a microcosm of the bigger community. Public education has to take and teach, by federal and state law, every child regardless of disability, need, race, economic status- every single child, from the most capable to the most disabled.  This means funds have to go to educate all children, and some children are more costly than others.  Take kids with disabilities or learning disabilities.  They often require more one on one or smaller ratio instruction.  Some children need a full time aide.

And even more interesting, people are starting to move into areas where the school districts provide better services.  A friend reports this year alone, families from Texas, Georgia and even Kenya have moved to Delaware so their children can be part of the Delaware Autism Program, one of the better programs out there for kids with austism spectrum disorders.  This program is run by the public schools, but it is serving a higher proportion of kids with autism than might occur naturally within the State, because the services it provides is a rarity.

Naturally, this means the State of Delaware is paying more money to educate these children on a per child basis as well, but they also profit from the parent’s tax money and talents.  But the State does not have the option to impose a usage tax, nor dissuade parents from doing what lawyers might call “forum shopping” for education.  Delaware must take all eligible students, and if someone moves to the area with an eligile student, even if it’s for that reason alone, they get services.

4. Public Education Talent Drain.  Another interesting historical fact about Delaware is that it had a long nasty issue with bussing. This lead to the development of a huge number of privateand parochial schools within the State, much more per capita than you would expect in a State this size.  Often this means that if you live in Delaware or over the border in Pennsylvania and Maryland, and have the means to do so, you send your kids to private school.  Not always, but frequently.  This means a disproportionate number of the kids from a higher socio-economic class go to private school, leaving the less fortunate kids, and often more troubled kids in public school.

While studies show that kids from both high and low socioeconomic status are more likely to have problems with substance abuse (and less in the middle- see below)* it’s not just the drug problem in each school that’s an issue- you are often chopping off the righ-side of the bell curve- the kids who “need a more competitive environment” or enrichment that get pulled out of the public school system.

Encouraging this “opt out” option with public tax dollars will only serve to exacerbate the current problem and make it worse.  Dollars will drain out of the public schools and into the private ones, while letting private schools pick and choose their pupils, leaving only the most difficult students in the public schools.

We need to fix education, and fix it’s funding.  Decent public education is an infrastructure issue, and it will be what keeps us competitive in  global economy.  But since it is very muchlong term R & D, if we don’t address issues now, we will pay for them dearly in the long term.

One last example:  Steve Graham, from Vanderbilt University has stated that based on 2002 educational testing, 69% of eighth graders and 77% of high school sniors cannot write well enough to keep up with the demands of the curriculum, and American Business spends over $3.1 Billion a year in remediating writing deficits.  So, we can pay for educatin early on, or pass it on to busines later on.  I don’t think it’s something we can afford to pay for on the back end, if we want to stay competitive as a nation.

What do you think?  I think this has to be one of the most critical political issues of our time, as decisions today will haunt us for years in the future.

* From PubMed- recent journal article about the correlation of substance abuse problems in kids with ADHD, showing it is often those in the lowest and highest socioeconomic status that have the biggest issues with substance abuse.

Am J Addict. 2007 Sep-Oct;16(5):403-9.Click here to read Links

Does social class predict substance problems in young adults with ADHD?

Monuteaux MC, Wilens TE, Biederman J.

Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA. mmonuteaux@partners.org

The relationship between social class and substance use problems is unclear. We aimed to clarify this association in a sample of young adult males with and without attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). We included 69 ADHD and 78 control subjects. Substance use problems were measured with the Drug Use Screening Inventory-Revised (DUSI). Among ADHD subjects, we found a U-shaped association, with elevated risk for substance-related problems at both ends of the SES spectrum. No significant association was found in controls. These findings indicate that substance use risk in ADHD subjects is especially vulnerable to social class.

PMID: 17882612 [PubMed – in process]