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Paul Cummins: The Elephant in the Classroom

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Posted on Nov 13, 2006

By Paul Cummins

Editor’s note: The following is the first chapter of Paul Cummins’ upcoming book, “Two Americas, Two Educations: Funding Quality Schools for All Students” (Red Hen Press,  January 2007).

In this excerpt, Cummins, the co-founder of the trailblazing Crossroads School in Santa Monica, Calif., argues that America contradicts its purported belief in the value of education by egregiously underfunding it.

There is one issue all Americans agree upon. We all say we believe in the value of education. Whatever our political or economic views, whatever our varied cultural orientations and tastes, whatever our religious convictions, we all believe that high-quality education is critical to the individual and to society. This means that we share a fundamental belief that public education has the capacity to mold the nation’s young people into capable, productive, and decent citizens, and that this accomplishment is one of our country’s highest public goals, if not the supreme goal.

Yet many of our schools are failing. How has this tragic disconnect occurred? Daily in our newspapers we read of declining test scores, overcrowded schools, gangs and vandalism, drugs and violence, deteriorating school grounds and buildings, alienated youth who are dropping out in droves. Yet, during much of this time, say, 1970-2005, the U.S. economy has grown and flourished. California, whose economy is larger than that of most nations in the world, is a case in point. In the 1970s, California public schools were judged to be excellent. Per-pupil spending in California schools was consistently above the national average. Then several major challenges (some would say disasters) confronted the state, and thus the schools, simultaneously.

California began receiving an unprecedented influx of immigrants, who now constitute 10 percent of the population (as opposed to the national average of 5 percent). Many of the new immigrants, who spoke little English, enrolled their children in the public schools. (Latino children now represent 45.8 percent of California’s public schools and 72.8 percent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.) In addition, California has one of the highest percentages in the nation of children who live in poverty, and this condition is worsening.


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A second blow was the passage in 1978 of Proposition 13, a statewide referendum that deliberately lowered the state’s property tax revenue. Gradually California’s previously admirable per-pupil funding fell to third lowest in the nation—where it has remained. English language learners and children living in poverty are simply more expensive to educate. California is not the only state to fail to respond to this demand upon its resources. California is a blatant example, but the rest of the nation is also failing. Not everything is a matter of funding, but funding is a crucial issue. While some conservatives, such as Eric Hanusher, point out that correlating funding to achievement is murky 1, the noted educator Alfie Kohn points out that no one in the suburbs says, “Money isn’t correlated with achievement, so here, you may as well take some of this extra cash off our hands.” 2 Even the most cautious of studies indicates that funding levels are crucial to student performance. In a recent study, Anne L. Jefferson concludes: “Overall, the literature indicates that the amount of money cannot be removed as an important variable in the education achievement of students. Furthermore, the literature clearly points to usage of money allocated as key.”  3 Our nation’s inner-city and low-income neighborhoods and impoverished rural communities are being grossly ignored, under funded, and thereby harmed. Writing about an often ignored segment of our nation—that is, poor rural areas—Cynthia Duncan states that nearly nine million Americans live in poverty in rural areas and one-third of the nine million live in communities with persistently high poverty rates. These children are virtually invisible; without a high-quality education, their chances to escape the crippling effects of poverty are almost nil. As Duncan writes, “Education is, just as the American Dream has always implied, an avenue for upward mobility for individuals. But most schools in America’s poor communities do not offer that opportunity.” 4

The nation also faces a growing sense that democracy at home is under siege. No matter how much they may admire billionaire captains of industry, most Americans still cherish a belief in a just society that is able to maintain at least some equality or proportionality of opportunity, and appropriateness in the distribution of wealth. Yet, as we have seen—and as this book argues—there has been a relatively recent and very rapid increase in the disparity of wealth in America. This growing gap plays itself out in our national education systems, where we see the growth of two distinct polarities: two Americas, two educations. On the one hand we see private schools and wealthy neighborhood public schools that offer beautiful and functional campuses, comprehensive and enriched curricula, and excellent teaching conditions. On the other hand, we find many inner-city and low-income neighborhood public schools with inadequate facilities, overcrowded classrooms, undernourished curricula, and overall miserable teaching conditions. And though some would argue otherwise, the fact that the well-to-do schools are often spending three times more than the others is, I believe, a major reason for the differences in quality, and hence opportunity, for the children. There is an elephant in the living room that most legislators, citizens, and even educators are ignoring: we are not properly funding our schools. Though we may wish it would, this elephant will not go away. Furthermore, there is a reason for this situation that we have not yet fully grasped.

Some will argue that educational spending has grown along with everything else—so what’s the problem? They will often add that it must therefore be poor management, bureaucracy, progressively oriented college education departments, or whatever, that have rendered our schools inadequate, not a lack of funds. I disagree. What we have not grasped is that in urban areas and elsewhere there has been a massive increase in social problems that has been neither fully acknowledged nor confronted.


1 Eric Hanusher, as quoted in Alfie Kohn, “The Schools Our Children Deserve” (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1999), p. 247.
2 Ibid.
3 Anne L. Jefferson, “Student Performance: Is More Money the Answer?” (Journal of Education Finance, Fall 2002), pp. 111-124.
4 Cynthia Duncan, “Worlds Apart: Why Poverty Persists in Rural America” (Cambridge, Mass.: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 205.

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By William Hart, November 27, 2006 at 8:32 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

If you throw money at a problem , you get more of it, you don’t even see the problem , it’s socialism and communism programming only in our schools , it’s not even about education any more , WELCOME to AMERIKA it’s not missed spelled . You need to do your home work. when is the last time someone said WE will give the people more freedoms ????????????????????????????????????????? START BY PUTING GOD BACK IN AMERIKA < or live in HELL !!!!!!!!!!!!!

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By Tomorrow College Talk, November 15, 2006 at 3:09 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’ll write about the college cost tomorrow, as I will FILL UP the “comment” space.

I see this from both sides.

I had a brother in law - Medical School Dept Head and Chair, just retired from a top public major university (rated top X, by different reports).

Most Sincerely,
Concerned Mother

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By NO quality education, empty promises!, November 15, 2006 at 1:56 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

There is NO quality education anymore, just “watered down” learning.

Incompetent Teachers

Teachers (some)  in our district aren’t even Degreed. They lie to the state about the stats.

Incompetent Principals that only care about their own butts and retirement packages.

Incompetent State Oversight of “rubber stamp” everything to valid their own pay checks.

Pass the buck and liability to the local school boards.  What a joke! I complain to the state oversight and it was “pass the BUCK”!

Funding does not exist, but yet we have bridges built to NOWHERE @ millions of dollars all approved by the GOP murderers.

The state records show some teachers aren’t even coming close to the mean state score for that grade or subject…..but nothing is DONE TO the TEACHER.  She still keep their jobs!  I find this criminal state behavior!

Not enough books in the classroom.  We don’t even have the state min. for the dictionarys
needed for the language tests.

Science books so old that you have “MOLD” on them dated 1998.  They don’t even come close to state standards at all.  God only knows what they show the state relative to the
little spot checks.  Maybe comic books.

Teachers “sleeping ” in classrooms. Yes we could use some pillows in out classrooms for 2 teachers.

Teachers select not to give out any homework.

Teachers that are to lazy to check what homework is given out.

Teachers writing answers to state test on the chalk boards BEFORE the test is given.

Teachers screaming don’t fire me for NON_ PERORMANCE.  Unions protect the dirt bags. I would LOVE to send them to a jail cell.

Teachers buying supplies out of the peanuts that they are paid. We have teachers that are buying some supplies from “walmart”.

The largest “killer to a child”, a school district that has no curriculum MAPPING by date, page, book, assignment given, rubrics assigned.  No lay-out of any type or nature is the worst of all. 

Or it is written so broad that an elephant can and will fit in same.  Has ZERO meaning.

No school director “pulling papers” to verify what teacher stated in the lesson plan is actually taught.

Teachers return tests, quizes and other papers 4 weeks later.  Wake UP.

NO CHECKS, NO BALANCES, in the state. A total FAILURE! You talk of a Do Nothing Congress…..we have a Do Nothing State “Enforcement”.  Grade F!

And a governor that is holding the people “hostage” just till Jan 2007.
Next year a new one comes in.  Will he produce?

Thank God this RED Governor is leaving!  Return him to   “Sender”!!  Nothing more than a grandstander with a mouth!

Concerned Mother

The USA is setting our children up for “EDUCATION FAILURE”!

PS>  I support state testing but hell make it worth being tested.  I currently spent over 1200.00 per child for actual school books
(the ones YOUR school would buy)
during the school year.  And another 500.00 for everyday school supplies per child. Our school is to CHEAP to supply or budget for same.  I spend
another 2500.00 per child in education enrichment per child per year.
  I use KUMON with each child @ 85.00 per child
per month.  I produce high yield education
results with each of my girls as proven by private testing.  I spend an average of 900.00 for AP Literature books for the girls to read daily from for an entire year.

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By nikto, November 14, 2006 at 12:52 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

NCLB is destroying Public Education by setting it up for privatization via phony failing “evaluations”.

This is going on right now, in schools across the nation, while the public sleeps.

Wake up, America, your public schools are being done away with!!!!

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By Roger Roth, November 13, 2006 at 9:01 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is all redundant.  Until there is a consensus on what “a quality education” is, we’ll get nowhere.  So long as the job of public schools is to make students marketable to coporate employers, education will fail, no matter how much is spent on it.  If that’s going to be the job, then let corporations and businesses train their workforce.  Schools need to teach kids how to think rationally, how to read, how to write, and how to live and contribute in a democratic society.  This is a huge job.  The mess is Iraq demonstrates lack of rational thinking, ignorance of religion and history, as well as inability to negotiate. Interesting, schools are now teaching anti-bullying strategies, which I agree with. The Get-a-Good-Education-So-You-Can-Get-A-Good-Job thing has to go.  This is the new milennium, and it calls for new skills.  How do we rid the world of poverty, war and greed?  How do we advance the cause of world-wide human rights?  How do we open dialogue and how do we sustain it?  How do we end, once and for all, Darfurs?  Until education starts to solidly address these questions, in my mind, It Ain’t Quality!

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By Jonathan Lundell, November 13, 2006 at 8:00 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

A historical quibble: the impact of the Serrano decisions earlier in the 1970s, that had the effect of transferring public school funding from local districts to the state, was more profound than that of Prop 13. To be sure, Prop 13 didn’t help, but after Serrano, school funding was effectively coming from the state’s general fund, to which property taxes we only one input.

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