The College   Summer 2002

More Equal Than Others

By Nick Riddle

A graduate student in sociology, funded by fellowships from the Spenser Foundation and the College, takes on an ambitious research project in an effort to understand the funding gap between public schools in wealthy and disadvantaged districts.

Any good education teaches that life, and especially human society, is rife with paradox and irony. The world of education itself - the practice, the effects, the outcomes, the whole shooting match - has irony aplenty. Often held up as the ladder to greater things for the less advantaged in American society, education can just as easily reinforce the privilege of the wealthy.
Joshua Klugman

Joshua Klugman
(Photo: Kendall Reeves)

Joshua Klugman, a graduate student in sociology, has spent a number of years examining group conflict in democratic industrial societies. With funding from fellowships awarded by the Spenser Foundation and the College, he has begun to map the responses of the wealthier sections of American society to attempts by state supreme courts to close the funding gap between public schools in well-to-do and disadvantaged districts. Under the mentorship of Pamela Walters, Rudy Professor of Sociology, Klugman has undertaken this ambitious attempt to untangle the knots of idealism, public policy, and self-interest that bind up American attitudes to equality in education.

"We have to go back 35 years to put Josh's work in context," says Walters. In 1966, a committee headed by James Coleman published a report titled "Equality of Educational Opportunity." The Coleman Report convinced policy-makers and scholars that the quality and quantity of resources in public schools have no impact on educational outcome. "This was at the height of the Great Society," Walters reminds us. "We were going to eliminate poverty. Schools were one of the linchpins of this; education was meant to be a ladder for the socially disadvantaged." But the Coleman Report found that extra funding didn't close the gap; the major determinant in a child's success was still found to be family background. "After the Coleman Report," says Walters, "policy-makers and social scientists adopted the view that school resources don't affect achievement outcomes. There have been a number of opposing arguments, but 35 years later, this is still the prevailing view."

The 1970s saw a major movement, conducted through the state supreme courts, to challenge the status quo. There was dismay among policy-makers that public schools in wealthier areas were sometimes funded as much as twice the amount per child than in poorer districts. The first such case was Serrano v. Priest, in which the California Supreme Court ruled that inequalities in funding of public schools violate the equal protection provisions of both the federal and state constitutions. Almost every state has since had at least one similar case; and in more than 50 percent of all states, the state supreme court has ruled unequal funding to be unconstitutional and has introduced an equalization clause into the state constitution. (Indiana, as a matter of interest, is not one of them.) The rationale behind the new measures has no basis in any idea that equal funding would bring about positive changes in academic achievement - the Coleman Report had disproved that. The equalization clauses arise out of a principle, inherent in the American ideal, that equal education is a fundamental right.

"So there's a paradox," says Walters. "Social science wisdom says that resources don't matter, but courts, parents, and campaigners care deeply about making the resources equal." Or at least, they care in a general way. When equality tries to settle in their own neighborhood, many wealthier families take umbrage. "Most middle-class people believe that education is important for their kids," says Walters. The rest, in many cases, is lip service.

Josh Klugman has a personal interest in the subject of funding equalization and the reactions to it. "My high school in Fort Wayne was considered less advantaged than many in the community," he says. "There was a proposal to renovate the school by using local property taxes. People from other, wealthier areas of town held a huge protest." Klugman was struck by the incongruity of the protests with the concept of education as a channel of mobility.

So what's behind these objections?
Klugman suggests that sociologist Randall Collins has an answer. "Collins argues that what people want from school is not technical skills as much as an indication that you can be easily assimilated into work culture." School credentials are therefore a form of "cultural currency," and the better the credentials, the more likely their holder will be to attain gainful employment in a coveted position. It's hard to resist quoting George Orwell's famous epigram from Animal Farm: "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others." And in a sense, this triumph of self-interest over idealism is no big mystery. It's a form of class consciousness, commonly discussed in a country like England but still a tad shameful to admit to in the United States.

"The writer Paul Fussell said that class is a dirty word in American society," says Klugman. But dirty words can cut through to the brutal truth, which in this case is that America is very far from being an egalitarian society.

Affluent parents often go to great lengths to try to block implementation of these funding equalization measures. "There's been hell to pay in places like New Jersey, Vermont, and Ohio," says Klugman. "The state supreme courts pass bills, and the legislatures stall it or pare it down to nothing." Walters describes it as a game of political volleyball, in which a state supreme court, insulated from public opinion, sends a bill to the state legislature, whose members have to answer to the electorate. The legislature then sends a stripped-down version of the bill back to the supreme court, which refuses it, and so the long game wears on.

"Josh's work digs more deeply into this puzzle," says Walters. "He's looking at the micro-political response to equalization." Klugman's initial project was a survey of affluent communities and their reaction to funding equalization attempts. Sociologist Michael Mintrom argues that these communities can undercut equalization by increasing their own local revenues or holding fund-raisers for their own public schools. Klugman wanted to find out whether Mintrom was right. "I looked at 39 metropolitan areas and suburbs," he says, "and examined how suburban school districts reacted financially to changes in the nearby cities' funding of schools."

"Josh is asking questions not asked before," says Walters, "and these questions take him into an area where it's not easy to get good information." She was able to give him the time to tackle such a challenging project, thanks to the Spenser Foundation in Chicago, the country's largest non-governmental funder of research on education. Walters was awarded a Spenser Mentorship, which provides funding for established scholars to mentor one or two students who have particular promise. She chose Josh Klugman as one of the recipients. "He's going to be an extraordinarily good social scientist," she says. "He's finding new data, and he's also using existing data very creatively."

The mentorship has relieved Josh of his teaching obligations for two years, giving him a generous amount of the commodity that all graduate students yearn for: time. "The mentorship allowed me to focus on research," says Klugman. "In that time, I completed my master's degree and wrote a paper that presented the results of my work." In the general run of things, most graduate students don't have the time or resources to start research until they start their dissertation; the Spenser Mentorship gave Klugman the chance to explore a large area of research prior to starting his dissertation. "Every graduate student writes a dissertation," says Walters. "You get it done somehow, on stolen time. But the more time you have, the better it'll be. It'll be bigger, and have a greater impact." What's more, she adds, fellowships like the one granted by the Spenser Foundation offer the only opportunity for students to do work on their own terms. "Graduate assistantships offer support, but GAs work on their professor's projects. Josh was able to set his own agenda." These fellowships, she says, are highly valued and scarce indeed.

Klugman's findings are ambiguous. He found no seismic funding shifts in the suburbs he studied, but his figures, based on U.S. Census Bureau statistics, chart a complicated relationship between central city and suburb funding. The ratio of city/suburb funding tends to change according to the period of time studied, whether the state concerned has tax/expenditure limits, and many other variables. Klugman found that some general conclusions are possible. For instance, if a state takes more responsibility for funding equalization, the gulf narrows; and if the ratio of a suburb's expenditure to its city's expenditure narrows, the suburb is more likely to compensate, but, says Klugman, "it's a small effect."

In Indiana, Klugman's figures (based on statistics for the 199899 school year) demonstrate how hard it is to establish a working hypothesis for public school funding. Indianapolis, with a median household income of $22,510, spent $9,933 per pupil; the suburb of Carmel, with a median income of $55,077, spent less per pupil ($9,352) than its urban center. But the more rural South Knox School Corp., with half the median income of Carmel, spent $13,876 per pupil - the highest expenditure of the eight districts in Indiana that Klugman studied.

There is much more research to be done. Klugman's project focused on urban districts, whereas rural areas are hit hardest by funding inequalities. After the two-year Spenser Mentorship, Klugman has been awarded a College Fellowship to continue his research and build on his findings. The extra time this grants him will make a more ambitious project possible, says Walters. "It's very hard to do research in that mid-graduate period," she explains, "but it's very, very beneficial to be able to. And that's what fellowships can help to accomplish." C

Nick Riddle, until recently a writer with the IU Foundation publications department, returned in May to his native England.

Mother, daughter leave legacy of support for mathematics graduate student
After her husband died in 1922, Hazel King Thompson took over his stone-milling business while raising two children. Before her marriage, Thompson had completed a degree in mathematics at IU in 1909 and had taught for several years in public schools.

After the stone mill folded, Thompson worked as a secretary in the Bloomington public schools before returning to college. She earned a master's degree at IU and worked for the Department of Mathematics before retiring in the early 1950s.

Thompson's daughter, Ruth, also attended IU, graduating with a degree in home economics in 1938. Ruth worked for many years as a dietician, including several years at the Indiana Memorial Union. In her younger years, she played the harp, and later became a regular attendee at the IU Auditorium.

Ruth died in Bloomington in 2001. To honor her mother, she created the Hazel King Thompson Scholarship Fund, providing endowed financial support for graduate students in mathematics.