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School Finance (Part 1) – Introduction and Definitions of Equal Educational Opportunity


by Thomas Sobol - October 15, 2000

A discussion of the various meanings of equal educational opportunity with implications for school finance

Gary Natriello:

We have a special guest tonight, and he is Dr. Thomas Sobol who is the Christian A. Johnson Professor of Outstanding Educational Practice here at Teachers College. Dr. Sobol has an A.B. from Harvard, an A.M. in Teaching from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, but more importantly he has an Ed. D. from Teachers College. And after teaching and supervising in Massachusetts and New York State, he served for sixteen years as Superintendent of Schools in Scarsdale, New York and for eight years as Commissioner of Education in New York State. He has also been very active nationally, chairing the board of the New Standards Project, serving on the Executive Committee of the Council of Chief State School Officers, and co-chairing the National Research Council's Committee on Education Finance: Equity, Adequacy, and Productivity which is going to be part of the topic of tonight's talk . He is the author of Your Child in School, a book for parents, and a number of other articles in education publications, including a recent article that is on your syllabus entitled "Beyond Standards: The Rest of the Agenda" in the Teachers College Record. At Teachers College, Dr. Sobol teaches courses in educational policy and educational ethics, he coordinates the program in Educational Administration, directs the Inquiry doctoral program and the Superintendents Work Conference, and co-directs the Future School Administrators Academy in collaboration with field practitioners.

Thomas Sobol:

All in his spare time.

Gary Natriello:

All in his spare time. And In 1996 Dr. Sobol received the Harvard Graduate School of Education Alumni Award for Outstanding Contributions to Education and in 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000 he received awards from Teachers College for excellence in teaching so he is an award winner as well so with no further adieu Tom I will turn it over to you Tom and welcome you to Ed Policy.

Thomas Sobol:

Thank you very much Gary, [ applause] You may want to revisit that gesture in a little while. The returns aren't in yet.

Good evening everybody, couple of preliminaries, all right? We have, or at least I think we have, a special guest, tonight [referring to a small child accompanying a member of the class] unless she's always here? Will you introduce our special guest, or do you want to? No, very clear about that, but nevertheless here she is, right? And we welcome her; we're glad you have her here tonight.

Couple of other bits of business before we get underway. The papers which were distributed, and thanks to those who did that job by-the-way, were in a certain order. Don't shuffle them, all right? You'll spend the rest of the evening trying to reshuffle them and figure out where we are. I'm going to allude to them as we move along through the evening. One final preliminary, my sitting on this desk is not to be rude to you. I have a problem, as some of you know, walking these days- used to leap tall buildings in a single bound, I really did- but I have a problem now-a-days so it's just easier for me to sit here than to try to move around. I'd like to be dramatic and hold a microphone in your face and say "What do you think about that?" I can't do that.

All right, we're here to talk about the topic, making money matter. We're here to talk about the American Public School education finance system and some people I know, already from the very get-go, are thinking "boring!" Many people, even people who take education very very seriously are not initially turned on by that topic. I don't think I've ever met a young person who told me that they went into- or an older person- who went into education because they really loved working with the state aid formula. I don't think that's ever happened. But the fact is, of course, I know you recognize the topic is very very important.

First of all, it's important simply because it spends so much of our money. It spends- public education system spends billions and billions and billions of dollars every year and it certainly is an important topic to the current presidential candidates, as we have all become aware. Secondly, you can't have education without it, and education is sort of important, so that's a reason for paying attention to it. And third, and more to our purposes, the way in which the system is designed and the way in which it operates, forces you to make choices that are of fundamental importance to the kind of society in which we live. Choices like what kind of education do we want our children to have? Who should provide that education and how should they provide it? What kind of support should we give to the providers of the education? And who among us should bear that burden?

How do we balance the competing claims of liberty and equity, equally cherished American ideals which are nevertheless sometimes in conflict, as we'll see this evening? In short, what kind of a society do we want to become? So we'll work our way around to those larger questions in a little while.

As Gary made clear by indirection, I am not an expert in educational finance and don't pretend to be one. But I've had some experience with trying to manage the money. As superintendent of schools, we had to prepare annually and submit to the voters of the community, an annual school district budget that had to be voted on affirmatively for us to do business in the following year. And that was a real world activity for me, managing that money. As state education commissioner, I presided over the disbursement of approximately 12 billion annually in aid to education to elementary and secondary schools and higher education, and other education-related organizations. So, that was a big job.

When I was commissioner, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (about which we'll talk more as the evening goes on) brought its lawsuit against the state arguing that the manner in which New York State funds its public schools is unfair and unlawful under the New York State constitution. Because, they said, (it's over simplifying it) the system is unfair to poor kids and doesn't provide adequately for their education. Now I thought they were right, but it was my job to defend the state against the suit and that made me very very uncomfortable. And what I wanted to do is to realign myself in the suit, as the lawyers say- realign, I'm not a lawyer either but the lawyers say that. And it means instead of being aligned with the defendants, I wanted to be aligned with the plaintiffs. But I needed the permission of the attorney general to do that, and the attorney general wouldn't grant it. So we worked out a compromise whereby I was aligned with neither party but served as an amicus, as they call it, to the court. Somebody who knew some of the information that could just provide the information. But then of course, I had the great fun, once I left Albany and came here to join this happy band of people, of being summoned as a witness in the trial. So now I became an expert witness for the - so-called expert witness - for the plaintiffs in the suit in which I had previously been a named defendant. And we'll talk a little bit about that suit because it's ongoing, current, very real, and you should all know about it, both for the broader principles that it acquaints you with and for its own inherent importance. We'll talk about it as the evening goes on. So that's my claim to fame and why I'm entitled to talk to you at all about it.

And finally, by way of background, the only approach we can take to this highly complex matter in the time available to us this evening, is a very general approach in which we attempt to raise some of the fundamental issues and the questions associated with them. But we will not get into the technical detail. They give whole courses in educational finance that would acquaint you with the detail, and I commend those courses to those of you who are interested in pursuing them. But that's not our job. We want to see what the broad policy questions are, what the broad policy issues are and what some of the responses to them are that we might make, and that are in fact being made almost literally as we sit here this evening, in this state and in others.

Now because this is a session where my goal, therefore, is more to raise issues than to settle them, I want to begin with a little exercise with you, and that's on the second page of your handout. The first page of the handout is an outline of what we're going to be doing. All right?

_____________________________________________________________________

Handout - Page 1
Making Money Matter
Thomas Sobol
September 27, 2000

1. What do you mean by "equal educational opportunity"?
2. Does money matter?
3. How are schools financed now?
4. Is the finance system equitable?
5. Is the finance system adequate?
6. Is the finance system productive?
7. Is the finance system obsolete?
8. What kind of finance system should we have?
9. Why don't we have it?

_____________________________________________________________________

Begin. It should have nine questions, starting with "what do you mean by equal educational opportunity." And then it runs down the rest- you may want to keep that page out 'cause that's the agenda for the evening. It'll keep me and you honest, all right?

But start with page 2, which is entitled "Equal Educational Opportunity". Most of us have heard that phrase many many times and most of us, I believe- at least in this society, in this country- grew up believing that that's an unquestioned ideal of American democracy that all children should have equal educational opportunity. We don't always realize it, but the ideal was always there. Now I want to ask you what do you mean by it? And I've given you some possibilities of what you might mean by it, and I'm going to ask you to figure out what you think the answer is in a minute, all right?

_____________________________________________________________________

Handout - Page 2
Equal Educational Opportunity

Premise: Public education should provide equal educational opportunity for all students.

Query: What do we mean by "equal"?

Below are listed four definitions of "equal educational opportunity," together with some arguments, pro and con each definition. Choose the definition that most closely approximates your point of view, and be prepared to defend your position.

1. Equal educational opportunity requires equal resources for all students.

Pro:

In a democracy, all students are equal before the law, and should have an equal starting Place. Share and share alike.

Con:
The Federal Constitution doesn't guarantee equality of educational opportunity.

Most State constitutions do not guarantee equality of educational opportunity, and parents and local school districts should be free to spend more on their children if they wish.

Some students are more needy and require additional resources if they are to have a chance to succeed.


2. Equal educational opportunity requires additional resources for students with special needs.

Pro:
Some students are more needy and require additional resources if they are to have a chance to succeed.

Con:
Taxpayers cannot be expected to save all students harmless from the vicissitudes of birth, background, or talent.

3. Equal educational opportunity requires equal educational outcomes for all students.

Pro:
The only equality that matters is equality of outcome, not of input.

Con:
Making all student's outcomes equal would stultify learning for many.


4. Equal educational opportunity requires that each student have the resources needed to attain an adequate threshold of learning.

Pro:
Such an outcome is preferable to equality of input, and is conceivably within our capacity to attain.

Con:
Where would you set the threshold? Significant inequalities would inevitably remain.

_____________________________________________________________________

Here are four different ways you could define it. "Equal educational opportunity requires equal resources for all students." The pro reason for that would be: in a democracy all students are equal before the law, they should have an equal starting place- share and share alike, fair is fair, everybody gets the same thing- that's one thing it could mean. There are some arguments against that: federal constitution doesn't require it to stick, constitution doesn't require it, and some students are arguably more needy and require additional sources if they are to have a chance to succeed. So you have to thresh out the pros and cons and tell me if you like number one or if you don't.

But a second choice is "Equal educational opportunity requires additional resources for students with special needs." And the premise of that is that some kids are more needy than others and if you're really going to take equal educational opportunity seriously, you've got to compensate for those, or meet those needs in some compensating fashion from the get-go in your provision of resources. And the argument against that, of course, is that, hey, whoever said that the taxpayers would be required to hold you harmless against all the vicissitudes of background talent and so on. Taxpayers don't always see it that way. So the first one is: everybody gets the same thing. Second one is: everyone gets the same things except the needier get more.

Third thing is: "Equal educational opportunity requires equal educational outcomes for all students." Not inputs anymore, not resources, but outcomes on the premise that that's all that counts anyway, right? Who cares if it's all equal at the starting gate if everybody ends up at a different place? If you really want to take equality seriously, everybody should be pretty much at the same place at the finish line, according to that way of thinking, and so, some people argue that. But, people who are opposed to that idea say making all students' outcomes equal would stultify learning for many because the only way you could get it so that everybody could attain that equal place would be to hold some people back, right? So you'd be holding some people back in order to permit everybody else to rise to a given level, all right?

And then the fourth possible definition is: "Equal educational opportunity requires that each student have the resources needed to attain an adequate threshold of learning." The idea for that is sort of this that, maybe you can't get everybody up to the same place as number three would ask you to do, but you can get everybody up to a certain place that may be sufficient for them to function in the work place and in a democratic society and that sort of thing, and you should do that. And the argument for that is that sounds fair, and may even be attainable, and it's better than just inputs, goes the argument. The argument against it is: they'll still have all kinds of inequalities left at the end, and can you live with that, or do you want to? Now, this is where I stop talking, and you start thinking. Or I hope you've been thinking right along, all right? Question first, yes?

Student:

The denotation of equality precludes the individual's wants and needs which differs from one person to another given neighborhood or given culture.

Thomas Sobol:

That, many of you will think that, but I want to see what everybody thinks first. We're going to get everybody a chance to get in the action first, and we'll come back. We'll start with you on the question period and we'll, in a minute, OK? But what I'm going to ask you to do is to take about- Oh my gosh, 20 minutes are up already- five minutes, no more than five minutes, in little groups, talk to one another. Groups of three or four. Now it's hard in this place because you can't move the chairs around and you're sitting in rows, but forget about it, just do it, you know. Just do it, just figure it out, right, so. Pay attention over here for a minute now, OK? There's probably not time to finish the conversation, but it should be time enough to get you into the conversation and begin to raise some of the issues, or at least I hope so.

________________

Group Discussions
________________

Thomas Sobol:

How many groups came to reasonable consensus around a choice?

Student:

We needed more time.

Thomas Sobol:

You needed more time, yeah. Yeah, 'cause it gets complicated. So, I don't see a lot of people who have achieved consensus. Let- before I go to the woman who asked the question before- 'cause I promised we'd go right back to you- but before we do that, let's have a quick show of hands, as individuals now, not as groups therefore- how many people chose the first response: equal resources for everybody? A handful. How many chose the second one, which is, the same for everybody but more for the most needy? Few more. How many chose the next one- equal outcomes for everybody? Got one or two bright people. How many chose the fourth response? How many don't care? I think that does account for everybody but it's sort of equally split between two and four with some votes for one and two each, right?

Let's - the woman who raised the question before - I promised we'd go back to you. Equal rules out some possibilities but it doesn't rule out others on this list, the way I read it. How do you read that?

Student:

Thomas Sobol:

Right.

Student:

And, it would seem to me initially that if I gave the per capita equal distribution of the entire fund, they would use a different one. My ethical problem, or my problem of ethics, is how to give the less privileged a leg-up, and so we raised the question in our group as to whether or not Headstart, of course, or Headstart had fulfilled us to some extent, but you can devil's advocate that by saying the Park Avenue community can send their kids also to-

Thomas Sobol:

Unless you prohibit them by law from doing that or-

Student:

Obviously this requires a little bit more careful definitive explicit denotation.

Thomas Sobol:

It certainly requires more time than I gave everybody. I'm aware of that. Which option did you choose finally?

Student:

We were muddled in terms of all four.

Thomas Sobol:

You as a group were muddled, but you as a person, you as an individual would have chosen what?

Student:

I'm torn between them all. Thank you.

Thomas Sobol:

Yup, that's OK, so is the legislature. I don't think anybody's quite figured it out yet. Can we hear an argument for number two? Who would make the argument for number two? A lot of you chose number two. Oh, come on, somebody in here, somebody voted-

Student:

I'll give an argument, I don't know how correct it might be but what always comes to mind is because my area of interest is bilingual bicultural education, and being a bilingual educator for 13 years, I've always seen both worlds where you have an English-only student coming in the classroom, who had the opportunity to go to preschool and may have been, has parents who are literate, has a small library at home, versus an English language learner that comes from the other side of the tracks, and doesn't have those types of learning opportunities in the home, starting school at a disadvantage. So, although they may be provided the same kinds of learning materials in the classroom, that obvious student that is an English language learner is already starting at a disadvantage. So you would need additional resources to try to get that child caught up, so to speak.

Thomas Sobol:

I think that's a very cogent argument. And by the way, in a policy discussion, I'm not sure that correct is what we're after. Persuasive may be what we're after in a-

Student:

Hopefully that was persuasive.

Thomas Sobol:

Or ethical, or wise, or something, and I think it was reasonably persuasive, although not everybody agreed. Who chose option three and can make a good argument for it? Equal outcomes. Well, I'll do it if you won't, but somebody voted for three- I know you did- yes? Woops, oh here comes the microphone, we've got this microphone bit going on here. We want to make sure the west coast hears what you have to say.

Student:

I think option number three is certainly an ideal in education, I don't think it's a feasible policy solution. I think it's important to recognize, however, that all four items remove the rest of socio-economic situations and I think that where students, what families they're from, what areas, what districts, what economic backgrounds they come from affect them, and so you can't look at education in isolation. But if you have to look at education in isolation, I think number three is certainly an ideal but I don't think it's pragmatic.

Thomas Sobol:

OK, some people would argue that it's not even ideal. That the pursuit of liberty is such that it should open the way to difference in outcomes, and to keep everybody the same is going to be stifling or curtailing somebody or whatever. But again, you make a reasonable case for it at first brush.

Who would argue for number four? Which was the threshold idea- get everybody up to a certain threshold and then let people go where they want beyond that. Have you all got mic fright? Is that what this is about? Usually I can't get my own mouth going fast enough.

Student:

I'm in most alignment with four. Because it's sort of what I think a lot of the state constitutions ask us to do. To give, some say adequate or some say appropriate, level of education to all the people in the state. And I agree with that, and I would love exemplary education for everybody in the state, but being a little more pragmatic, I think if we could somehow come to a consensus as to a threshold, that would be a good starting place to go forward from.

Thomas Sobol:

Does anybody want to add to that? Yes?

Student:

The other thing ___ [inaudible] global difference in education, what people are learning and what they're doing, so that's why I like four.

Thomas Sobol:

I didn't really hear you because I was so interested in watching Gary make it across the room. He does it with such- he's got great style, hasn't he? It's really neat to watch him, wow! He one-handed it! Tell us again, would you please?

Student:

Sorry, what I liked about four was the differences that you do get out of it. That you can have people at a level so they can go in the workplace and they can survive but the same time, they can go about what they can linear or horizontally.

Thomas Sobol:

What's the down side of four? Imagine an argument against it.

Student:

How do you decide on the threshold?

Thomas Sobol:

What did you say?

Student:

How do you decide on the threshold?

Thomas Sobol:

How do you decide on the threshold is what the woman said. Yes? In the back-

Student:

A problem I had before is how do you define adequate? Standard and ___ [inaudible] and how do you define that?

Thomas Sobol:

Right. Good question and we'll deal with it, and what we're going to be talking about as we move along here. The lady in the middle, yes-

Student:

___ the threshold and making reference to the standards that that was what the adequate threshold of learning was. So therefore if- you know I thought that would be the whole point of standards, which I agree with that- that I think there should be standards-

Thomas Sobol:

Well you just anticipated the chief argument of the attorneys for the campaign for fiscal equity that we'll be reviewing in a few minutes. You're right on target. We'll come to that in a few minutes.

Student:

OK.

Thomas Sobol:

The gentleman in the back, or the person in the back, somebody back there.

Student:

I was just thinking in terms gifted students. And then what if the gifted students reached the point where they thought was adequate, and what did that person do from that point on- you know- shouldn't we be letting kids, giving them the resources to be the best they can be or just be adequate and let them figure out the rest of the way.

Thomas Sobol:

OK, one more comment and we're going to have to stop because we have too much to move onto here. But somebody over here had a question. Was it you, sir?

Student:

I was going to say that I thought defining adequacy would be imperfect and difficult but once you did it, it'll allow some measure of accountability that students or teachers in schools would have to achieve whatever that threshold was.

Thomas Sobol:

Good point, good point. You, too, anticipate the campaign for fiscal equity brief a little bit. We'll come to that in a minute. Now we didn't decide what your approach is going to be, but once more before this session is ended, I'm going to get you to talk again about what kind of a finance system you would advocate if you were in a position to advocate it, all right? So that's what we're coming back to toward the end of it. All we're doing at the outset is getting out some of the issues on the table and seeing what some of the choices are and what we're dealing with, all right? Let me talk to you for a few minutes about some of these other questions on page one before you come back into the frame.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 15, 2000
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10595, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 10:55:07 AM

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About the Author
  • Thomas Sobol
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    Thomas Sobol is the Christian A. Johnson Professor of Outstanding Educational Practice at Teachers College.
 
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