RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Is there a better way to fund our public schools? That's the big question today as we wrap up the NPR Ed team's School Money series. And the answer to this question matters a lot with the achievement gap between the nation's wealthiest and poorest students growing, not shrinking. Over the past two weeks, the Ed team, working with 20 member station reporters, has brought us stories of big spending gaps between schools. And I'm joined now in the studio by the Ed team's Cory Turner. Hey, Cory.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: One big source of those spending gaps, Cory, is schools' reliance on property tax money, right? This is something you guys have been reporting.
MARTIN: More affluent districts can raise more money. So what have you learned? Is there a better way?
TURNER: Well, I don't know about better necessarily, but definitely a different way. One case study we're highlighting this week is Oregon. Back in the 1990s when property values were rising, Oregon voters said enough, and they voted to cap their property taxes. Now they knew this would be tough on schools. So what they did was shift some of the school funding burden that traditionally falls to property taxes onto income tax. The only problem is in tough economic times, income is really volatile. And that ended up creating a kind of school funding roller coaster in Oregon. So reporter Rob Manning for Oregon Public Broadcasting, he went to a rural district called Pendleton in Oregon. And he got a tour of a high school there with Superintendent Jon Peterson. And Peterson told him - he said look, when times were good, funding was good. We started new courses for our students, we started a fisheries program.
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JON PETERSON: We were raising fish and growing plants. And now this is storage, what you're seeing here. And it ended quickly, just kind of after we got it going.
TURNER: We should say Pendleton led a lawsuit - a school funding lawsuit - against the state of Oregon. And funding there is still pretty complicated.
MARTIN: All right. So is there a way to keep property taxes in the equation but without creating big spending gaps between rich and poor districts?
TURNER: Yes. So I want to talk now about Wyoming. This is one of the most interesting stories I've found over the course of this project. And to be clear upfront, Wyoming is anomalous for a lot of reasons. It's a big state, but has a very small student population. It's also really resource-rich. And one more wild card here - it also had a school funding lawsuit. And as a result, the court basically said you need to find a new way of distributing property tax. So Wyoming ended up doing something that most states don't do. It allows local communities to raise and spend money locally in their schools. But once they hit a certain threshold, anything above that is collected by the state and redistributed to poorer districts.
MARTIN: That sounds fascinating. It also sounds like it might be controversial.
TURNER: It's - it is really controversial, Rachel. And that's the reason why only a handful of states do anything remotely like it. It's also worth saying, though, because this still allows local communities to raise and spend money locally, there are still big spending gaps in Wyoming. But if you talk to lawmakers there, they make a lot out of the fact that Wyoming, overall, their per-student spending average is around $17,000, which is a full $6,000 per student above the national average.
MARTIN: This was a really ambitious project. You guys covered a lot of ground. You did a lot of different stories. As we said, 20 station reporters were involved in this project. Through it all, you have overseen all this reporting. What's the big takeaway for you?
TURNER: Yeah, Rachel, I think while there are no - while there are no quick fixes, I think it's important to make clear that it's not just about the money itself. It's about changing the way we think about our obligation to kids in schools in other districts, in other neighborhoods that aren't our own. And to that end, I actually want to give the last word here to a Texas state lawmaker that we're going to meet in a story this week from reporter Kate McGee in Austin. He's a Republican. His name is Jimmie Don Aycock. He's retiring. And he has tried for years to fix Texas's school funding system. And he said this last May on the floor of the Statehouse there in Texas.
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JIMMIE DON AYCOCK: We think in terms of black kid and brown kids and white kids. We think of poor kids and rich kids, kids from small districts, kids from larger districts. And we each come here representing our subset of kids, and that's how the process works.
TURNER: And in one more cut, Aycock also posed the question that we've been wrestling with for these last two weeks.
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AYCOCK: What will it take to fix school finance? It'll take a common view of of 5.2 million children without dividing them into subgroups.
TURNER: Now he's obviously talking about Texas kids there, but I think it's true of the nation's 50 million kids. You know, not that all of these kids are the same, but that our obligation to them - to make sure they all have access to a good education, that should be the same.
MARTIN: Cory Turner of the NPR Ed team talking with us about the School Money series. Thanks so much, Cory.
TURNER: Thank you, Rachel.
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