The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which was part of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, was specifically designed to help schools with the neediest students. To qualify for federal money under Title I, a school was required by law to have at least a stipulated percentage of its students eligible for free school lunches. I still don't understand why a threshold is needed because I believe that a school deserves to get Title I funds based on any percentage of poor students it enrolls.
This view is especially relevant to what is taking place today. As schools improve, they tend to attract middle-class parents who previously enrolled their children in private or religious schools. Although their presence is sorely needed to provide a healthy balance for the student body, they create an unanticipated problem by reducing the number of students officially designated as poor. As a result, these schools no longer qualify for Title I funds ("More Schools Are Not Poor, Not Rich, Just Squeezed," The New York Times, Jul. 3). Moreover, middle-class parents lack sufficient financial resources to make up for the difference through fundraisers and the like.
In California, funding has little connection to need. Some school districts get more money per student than others, even when student characteristics are almost the same ("A new tack on funding California's schools," Los Angeles Times, Jun. 18). Recognizing this fact, Gov. Jerry Brown wants to give 20 percent more to schools enrolling students who are poor or don't speak English. School districts with large numbers of these students would receive 40 percent more. Whether this would make a significant difference depends to a large extent on how the money is spent in serving such students. More money alone does not guarantee improvement.
Nevertheless, it's hard to argue that money doesn't matter. If it doesn't, then why do parents in affluent suburban districts participate in fundraisers throughout the school year? Other countries place great emphasis on equity in financing their schools, providing resources where they are needed the most. The challenge in today's recession, therefore, is to convince taxpayers that their support of schools is an investment. As with all investments, however, there is a risk that they may not pay off.