RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We're going to spend the next few minutes on a simple question with no simple answers. Does it matter that some public schools spend much more money on students than other public schools? Many people think it does matter. According to one poll, Americans have consistently, year after year, put lack of money at the top of the list of problems facing U.S. schools. And more than a dozen states are being sued by parents and activists who think the way schools are funded is unfair. Over the next few weeks, the NPR Ed team will be exploring the problem of money in schools with help from 20 member station reporters across the country. For a tour of what's coming, we're joined by one member of the team, Cory Turner. Good Morning.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: And talk to us about how it is that spending varies so much from state to state and district to district, school to school. I mean, how do we pay for our public schools?
TURNER: It's pretty remarkable. I think most of us assume we understand the system, but I certainly didn't once I started doing my homework. I mean, one of the reporters in our project, Becky Vevea from WBEZ in Chicago - she actually found two school districts less than an hour apart - one on the north side of Chicago, one on the south side - and one spends three times as much money as the other. The best way to understand this, really, is - think about school funding as three buckets, OK? The first and the smallest bucket comes from the federal government. That's about 10 percent of the money schools have to spend. The other two come from some balance between state dollars and local dollars. And this big imbalance really comes from that local bucket because much of that money is raised through local property taxes, and it makes sense. If you live in a property-wealthy district, it's going to be easier for you to raise more money and spend more money in your schools than it is for a property-poor district.
MONTAGNE: Give us some more examples of the kinds of stories that you have been hearing from fellow reporters on this project.
TURNER: Sure, yeah. I want to make clear - I mean, I mentioned Chicago there. This isn't just a big-city, large-district problem. One story specifically comes to mind out of rural Sumter County, Ala., which is farm and timberland in the western part of the state. The school district there is largely African-American and low income. And our reporter there, Dan Carson from WBHM, he visited Livingston Junior High He got a tour from the principal. And it was clear to him almost from the moment he set foot in the building that this district just doesn't have the money that it needs. Here he is visiting a former classroom, emphasis on former.
DAN CARSON, BYLINE: Yeah, you can smell the mold in here.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Exactly.
CARSON: It floods when it rains in here? The floor's all...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, I'm not going to say it floods, but, you know, you can tell there's a standing leaking that comes down.
CARSON: Oh, is this - this is to catch the water?
TURNER: And the principal told him a second later that, you know, he'd love to be able to use this room for something else. He just can't because it's in such bad shape.
MONTAGNE: Well, Cory, as I mentioned in the introduction, more than a dozen states are now in the middle of school funding lawsuits. Who is suing, and what are their complaints?
TURNER: Generally, the who is parents, activists, and, in many cases, local low-income school districts. What are they suing about? I think the best way to explain that is to go back to one of the landmark school funding lawsuits. It was in 1973 out of Texas. And it went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
It was filed by a father outside of San Antonio named Demetrio Rodriguez. And he was angry because he could see, in a district just next door, many more resources. And he argued, look, there's no way that my kids going to a decrepit school where many of the teachers aren't even certified are getting the same education that those kids over there in this other district are getting. Here's his lawyer, Arthur Gochman, making that argument before the Supreme Court.
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ARTHUR GOCHMAN: Are we going to have two classes of citizens - minimum-opportunity citizens and first-class citizens?
TURNER: Ultimately, the court ruled against Rodriguez. It was a narrow ruling - 5 to 4. But they said, look, there's no protection in the U.S. Constitution for equal education funding.
MONTAGNE: So Demetrio Rodriguez lost. That was more than forty years ago. Cory, are you saying that schools have no remedies in the courts?
TURNER: No. The interesting thing about this case is that even though Rodriguez lost, it was a turning point in the school funding lawsuit movement. And so that -- plaintiffs shifted their attention away from the U.S. Constitution and towards very specific language in most state constitutions, to the point that we are today, where some 45 states have now seen school funding lawsuits.
MONTAGNE: What does all this mean at the school level, at right down to the student level?
TURNER: Yeah, I mean, a big part of this project is hearing the personal stories of students, teachers, parents and administrators in these districts, both big-city and small rural, that are having to make tough choices because they don't have the money that they think they need.
And we have one story from a rural district outside of Phoenix, that, you know, cut its art teachers, cut their librarians, and they still didn't have enough money to retain good teachers. They had a really high teacher turnover rate. So they did something that I think many folks would consider pretty drastic. They went to a four-day school week. We also have a story out of St. Louis from a large district there - again, low income.
And a superintendent named Tiffany Anderson, who - she's doing a couple novel things. She knows she's not going to get extra money from the state, and so she's taking matters into her own hands. She's raising a lot of money, forging public-private partnerships. But she's also become a kind of budget hawk, slashing every budget line that she can that doesn't show up in the classroom. And that means everyone's doing multiple jobs, including her.
TIFFANY ANDERSON: The members of my staff, including myself, we have maybe ten different roles that we juggle. Crossing guard happens to be one of the ones that I have. It is a way to really maximize that budget so we can divert dollars in the classroom. Excuse me for just a minute.
MONTAGNE: Excuse me, I've got to go. All right, so on to being a crossing guard there. So we can expect to hear these stories and more throughout the next few weeks.
TURNER: We'll have lots of good material. Next week, we're going to dig into the research about the power of a dollar in a classroom. And we've also built a really cool map along with our friends over at Education Week that will let anyone out there who wants to find how much money their schools locally are spending on their students. You can find it at npr.org/schoolmoney.
MONTAGNE: All right, well, looking forward to it. That is Cory Turner of the NPR Ed team. Thanks very much.
TURNER: Thank you, Renee.
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