Valuing children's education


For some young people school is a shunting yard from which they are progressively nudged into sidings that promise escape but which lead nowhere. Few things are as strongly connected with social disadvantage and poverty as limited or deficient schooling. So much so that it matters little how you retrace the lives of the poor – individually, or in terms of neighbourhoods of concentrated poverty, or the institutions in which we lock people up – the path almost invariably leads to an earlier unsuccessful passage through schooling.

It dishonours our society to treat lightly the special needs of children and young people in danger of having opportunities closed to them as early as in their mid-primary years. Ahead for them lies an early departure from school, unemployment, low work skills, sickness, and financial hardship. These are the defining attributes of our most disadvantaged neighbourhoods and also the localities identified in the UK as being areas of ‘social exclusion.’ A society that truly values its children is morally obliged to ensure that the level of funding available for their education covers the mastery of basic skills and the avoidance of children falling into educational holes from which they often cannot recover, as well as the maximum practicable development of young people’s talents. The connection between early school failure and the prospects of imprisonment are sufficiently strong for one American state (Ohio) to base its long-range prison capacity requirements on third grade test scores.

At present a fiction is being put about that the level of expenditure on school education is of little importance. Instead, the quality of teaching is emphasised, as though that consideration is totally independent of funding. At the policy and administrative levels the situation is not helped by the fact that in our country competition between the education sectors for available government funds is simply that. There is no framework of principles to locate the issue where it properly belongs, namely, guaranteeing the educational resource needs of Australia’s young people so that they avoid crippling early educational deficits and enjoy the maximum practicable realisation of their talents.

In these matters we would do well to incorporate the insights afforded by American educational and legal debates over school funding in recent decades. Those insights could help to inject a greater measure of consistency and social justice into our own practices. The recent unheralded emergence of a research-based educational funding framework developed at the behest of Australian State and Commonwealth Ministers of Education and Training improves the prospect of this happening.

The concern to design funding formulae that promote adequacy and equity has been strong in America over the past thirty years. A number of lawsuits that began in California in 1971 have encouraged changes in states’ school education funding. The sources of funding obviously differ from those that apply in Australia but the guiding principle is that enough money should be available for all children to meet academic expectations.

More is involved in the American debate than simply assuming that all students have similar educational needs. If that were the case you would simply distribute the available funds in equal quantities to achieve ‘equal treatment.’ The reality is different from this: students vary, among other things, in their English proficiency, their social, economic and educational backgrounds. There is broad agreement that educating low income or special education students costs more than educating the average pupil. The research evidence shows that provided the services rendered are of good quality, the extra investment will pay-off.

Initially lawsuits focused upon the ‘equity’ question – did students receive a comparably fair and equitable education? Increasingly equity issues have given way to ‘adequacy’ issues. The first step is to identify the specific resources and conditions necessary to provide all children with a reasonable educational opportunity. This amounts to working out the cost of purchasing a standard, adequate, ‘market basket’ of educational goods and services required to provide every child with an opportunity to meet specified education standards. The second step is to adjust that cost up and down to reflect differences in the needs of students in different localities.

I don’t want to make the task sound easy: few things to do with education finance reform are. As someone has observed, ‘School finance reform is like a Russian novel; it’s long, tedious, and everybody dies at the end.’ The question of what constitutes an ‘adequate’ level of school education funding is still being litigated in America. In some states the courts have found existing levels to be ‘adequate’ when the attainment of minimum standards of education has been the test.

In other states where courts have emphasised the equal entitlement of students in poor areas to the same educational opportunities as students in the wealthiest areas, the provision of a basic education has been judged insufficient. Despite these complications there are few, if any, more promising approaches on offer for resolving the present conflict over school funding in a fair way than by emphasising the principle of ‘adequacy.’

For their part lawyers and activists have articulated demanding concepts of ‘adequacy’ in the educational opportunities they seek on behalf of disadvantaged populations. These cases have met with varying success. However, the reliance since 1989 upon adequacy arguments has seen a marked increase in plaintiff victories. Rebell calculates that sixteen of the eighteen such victories during this period have involved substantial or partial adequacy considerations.

Instead of focusing solely on monetary inputs, courts and policy makers are stressing the attainment of high minimum outputs as a primary goal in school finance. ‘Suddenly, an equal share of too little is becoming unacceptable in many states.’ An example of this approach was the recent New York Court of Appeals ruling in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State. The court prescribed a costing-out study to determine a level of expenditure that would ensure that all students have the opportunity to obtain the higher level of achievement specified by the court. The courts also have sought to support students’ rights by requiring the availability of essential resources including sufficient numbers of qualified personnel, appropriate class sizes, suitable buildings, adequate books, laboratories and educational technology, suitable curricula and adequate resources for students with special needs.

The emphasis upon outcomes has encouraged the courts’ consideration of the basic goals of education in a democratic society. They have taken seriously the need to provide all students with the skills they need to function in today’s world. A sound basic education has been deemed by the New York courts to consist of ‘the foundational skills that students need to become productive citizens capable of civic engagement and sustaining competitive employment.’

In what is known as the Adelaide Declaration on National Goals for Schooling in the Twenty-first Century, Australia’s Ministers of Education in 1999 committed themselves to improving Australian schooling within a framework of collaboration. The goals established by the agreement included attaining the skills of numeracy and literacy; acquiring the capacity for, and skills in, analysis and problem solving; gaining confidence, optimism and a commitment to personal excellence; learning to exercise judgement and responsibility in matters of morality, ethics and social justice and being a confident and creative user of new technologies. The Declaration by all the ministers adds that students’ outcomes from schooling should be free from the effects of negative forms of discrimination and of differences arising from students’ socio-economic backgrounds.

For these goals to become a reality, a funding process akin to overseas efforts to match resources with student needs would have to be developed. With little public fanfare that is precisely what has been happening. The Resourcing the National Goals Project has analysed financial and relevant government school data within the framework of principles endorsed by the Ministerial Council in July 2002. The first step has been to establish a baseline (Base Cost) and that has been derived by answering this question: ‘What does it cost to provide effective schooling where schools are not isolated, are of a good size and cater to middle class communities?’
Consistent with overseas analyses the project has recognised that the relative weight of different cost factors varies across schools and that the same is true for different levels of schooling. ‘Student factors’ represent the major portion of the calculated Additional Resource Needs and for all government school students an additional annual expenditure of approximately $2 billion (2003 prices) is required.

For the first time we now have a reasonably sophisticated and objective method of providing educational funding that is equitable and adequate. The project’s findings have yet to be endorsed by the Ministerial Council but the advent of the National School Resourcing Standard provides an uncommon opportunity to align our society’s actual conduct with the values that it professes to uphold.

It is not some ‘out of left field’ wildcat scheme but rather the principles of equity and adequacy that have informed the project are mainstream and orthodox, as illustrated by the American courts. The project’s findings represent a workable framework for distributing education funds on a principled basis. At hand is a practical, focused means of combating disadvantage and poverty.

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