Monday, February 26, 2007

What Alondra Learned

In ‘Final Test – the Battle for Adequacy in America’s Schools’ (published by The New Press) Peter Schrag outlines the legislative battles fought during the 1990s to calculate just exactly what ‘adequate’ meant when it came to children’s education.

Alondra Jones was a student at a crumbling Los Angles school there was a succession of substitute teachers, the toilets had ‘scene of crime’ tape plastered everywhere, the gyms were covered with mice and bird droppings and the laboratories were never used. Alondra sued the state of California to win a better deal.

In 1978 California passed ‘Proposition 13’ which cut state taxes and led to what was euphemistically called ‘deferred maintenance’ in schools. By the late 1990s California was spending an average of $6,000 per pupil compared to $9,000 in New Jersey.

This situation was mirrored in other parts of the country, during the Reagan era, as the federal government cut money allocated to states. The situation became so serious that coalitions of councillors, teachers and parents began to take out court cases to demand an ‘adequate’ education. In Kentucky the driving force was the local business community who were appalled at the competence of their prospective employees.

In many states there was a further complication because taxation for school districts was based on local property values, so in 1999-2000 Illinois spent on average $7,460 on pupils in districts with the lowest child poverty rates and $5,400 where child poverty was the highest; in New York the comparable figures were $8,598 and $6,445; Pennsylvania $7,285 and $6,037 – in its wealthiest areas Pennsylvania was spending $10,000 per pupil.

Some of the legal battles lasted for years and California spent $20 million trying to fend off an ‘adequacy’ case. The book does get too involved with the minutiae of the courtroom but it is a stunning indictment of America’s education system. This isn’t a dry academic book the first chapter ‘What Alondra Learned’ relates the human side of the story very effectively.

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