George W. Bush and Al Gore are talking the education talk, but neither is walking the education walk. By far the biggest obstacle to upward mobility in this prosperous nation is the lousy schools so many poorer kids attend. But neither candidate comes close to a solution. I think I have one--or the beginnings of one--but before I let it out of the bag, you need to understand the two main reasons poor kids attend lousy schools.
First, there's not nearly enough money. Across America about half of school revenues come from local property taxes. Increasingly, though, Americans are segregating by income in terms of where they choose to live. Entire towns are now either rich, poor, blue collar, or middle class. That means poorer districts have lower tax bases, which translates into fewer dollars per pupil. Court-ordered state "equalization formulas" seeking to redress the financial imbalance haven't worked. A new analysis from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that most poor students live in districts that spend less per student than their state's average. One in four poor kids receives between 10 and 30 percent less than students from middle-income families.
It shouldn't be surprising, then, that poorer schools are more run-down than schools in richer communities, that they have fewer new books, and that their equipment is more outmoded. Their teachers don't earn as much as teachers in richer schools, even though the challenges they face are more formidable. No wonder that, as the U.S. Department of Education recently reported, much of the teaching in schools serving poor communities is now done by teacher's aides without college degrees, instead of by qualified teachers.
The second reason poor kids attend lousy schools is that most of the other kids who attend them are also poor. Poverty in America is becoming more geographically concentrated. So the poverty-related problems of these children--drugs, violence, unruly behavior, low self-esteem, and parents too overwhelmed to give their children the attention they need--are compounded by the presence of many other kids with the same problems.
Peer effects among school-age children are significant--as any parent of a teenager will attest. High school students are less likely to go to college when fewer of their classmates are college-bound; more likely to get into trouble with the law when more of their classmates get into trouble; more likely to have babies out of wedlock when more of their peers are having babies. New evidence strongly suggests that peer effects extend beyond schools to the communities surrounding them. After a random sample of poor inner-city families in Boston received housing vouchers that enabled them to move to higher-income suburbs, their children's behavior improved relative to children in families who wanted the vouchers but lost out in the lottery.
Any sane approach to giving poor kids a better education would have to respond to both these reasons they're trapped in lousy schools. Instead of giving poor kids less money per pupil than middle-income kids get, give them more. Per-pupil public school expenditures now average $6,000-7,000 a year in the United States (state averages range from $4,000 to $9,000). So back up every child from America's poorest 20 percent of families with $10,000 to $12,000, and children from families in the next quintile with $8,000 to $10,000.
At the same time, bust up the concentrations of poor kids in the same schools. Create incentives for them to disperse. Let any school that meets minimum standards compete to enroll these kids and receive the public money that goes with them. (Put aside for now the tricky First Amendment issue of public money for religious schools.) Go a step further: Give children from families in the top 20 percent of income only $2,000 to $4,000 of public money each year (the families are of course free to top this off with their own money), and children from families in the next-to-highest quintile, $4,000 to $6,000. That way, schools in nearby wealthy suburban communities also will try to lure some of the poor kids their way in order to meet their budgets--perhaps sending out vans to collect them and drop them off.
Notice I haven't used the term "voucher." It's become so loaded--like abortion and communism--that you can't talk about vouchers without being tarred as either "for" or "against." Nothing else gets through. A few weeks ago, in a piece for The Wall Street Journal, I made a case for "progressive vouchers" and immediately became the liberal poster child for the pro-voucher movement. It was ironic because the whole point of the piece was that vouchers alone won't work. They'll just sort American children even more--further concentrating the kids who are more needy or more troublesome, or whose parents are less able to cope, in schools that are even worse than before--as every slightly better-off child runs for the exits. Such schools would end up with even fewer resources per difficult child. America would become even more socially stratified. Let there be no mistake: Vouchers without a lot of extra money behind poorer kids are worse than no vouchers at all.
So don't call my proposal a voucher scheme. Call it anything else. Call it liverwurst. My liverwurst scheme is designed to get more money to poor kids and break up concentrations of poor kids in the same institutions--in other words, to go after the core reasons that poor kids are locked in bad schools. This will be a hard sell, to say the least. Any hope for it requires a coalition of conservatives who want to give poor kids more choice and liberals who want to give them more money. But liverwurst is the only solution. ¤