Winter 2005 Newsletter

NSBN's 'Equity Beyond Dollars' Argues It Takes A Neighborhood To Raise A Child

The promise of schools as centers of communities is at its heart one of making meaningful opportunity available to all children and their families. The following excerpt of "Equity Beyond Dollars: California's Choice for Children - Lessons Learned" by David A. Abel, Angela E. Oh, Jonathan Zasloff, Edward Takashima, and Alan Mobley makes the case that real equality of opportunity goes far beyond funding formulas and consent decrees. This NSBN report, with funding from the Rockefeller Fdn., is available at

For more than a half century, California has led the nation in public education - for both good and ill. During the 1950's and 60's, the state created the country's finest public education system. But starting from the mid-70's, the state saw the quality of its public education collapse. The whole state has suffered, but nowhere more so than its low-income and minority communities. Instead of serving as healthy centers of community life, many of California's inner-city and inner-suburban schools have become overcrowded neighborhood eyesores and danger zones, isolated and ineffective islands alienated from their communities. They are simply unable to provide the education that low-income children need to compete in today's economy and achieve the American dream.

The state of the current system presents California's policymakers with a particularly bitter irony, for the state was a pioneer in judicial attempts to equalize school funding. Serrano v. Priest, originally decided in 1971, was the crowning achievement of the last generation's educational equity movement. Serrano was so politically significant that President Richard M. Nixon highlighted it in his 1972 State of the Union address, and numerous states followed California's lead. If any state should not have an educational equity problem, it is California. And yet the inequity persists, darkening the state's future and choking off genuine equality of opportunity.

This report explains why. Two principal reasons best explain the gap between public education's promise of equity and performance in California:

  • The Gaps in Serrano. While Serrano theoretically limited differences in per-pupil spending between school districts to narrow margins, its mechanics left out nearly as much as they included, most importantly in the field of facilities construction. Most significantly, funds available for facilities construction remained tied to an obsolete and discriminatory process favoring wealthy suburban districts over poorer urban ones. For several decades taxpayers in poorer urban districts have effectively subsidized wealthier exurban districts. The results of these gaps turned the intent of Serrano on its head and made a mockery of its promise. Recent changes in state law have begun to improve the situation, but the effects of decades of inequity will take time and vigilance to resolve.
  • Equity Beyond Dollars. Just as importantly, California's experience reveals that equity by formula, while necessary to achieve true equality of opportunity, is not nearly sufficient to accomplish the job. Focusing on funding allocation formulas alone obscures the central insight that schools can only provide effective education to low-income children when they are an integral and positive part of the communities around them. The most successful efforts at educating poor children occur only when schools actively anchor and sustain an integrated process of neighborhood empowerment and revitalization. As former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley has often said: "Schools which are built or maintained as islands in inhospitable neighborhoods consistently fail to achieve excellence." New Schools/ Better Neighborhoods is intent on mitigating intergovernmental competition, breaking down silo-like barriers to collaboration, and supporting efforts to build mixed-use, neighborhood centered schools which overtly reconnect our public schools with our neighborhoods.

This monograph will justify these two conclusions by examining both the history of California's incomplete efforts to attain funding equity, and several case studies of how planned integration of schools into the fabric of communities has improved equity of educational opportunity.

This report documents how, over time, California has created a Rube Goldberg-like contraption for funding school construction, a contrivance comprised of statutes, judicial decisions, consent decrees, and voter initiatives which essentially serves to systematically discriminate against poor urban school districts. Even though urban districts serve the largest number of poor, at-risk children, bureaucratic and other legal requirements often turn them into helpless giants when it comes to accessing scarce facilities construction dollars to build learning environments.

Recent years have seen a marked improvement in the allocation process. Today there is a renewed dedication to ensure that California's public education systems ensure fairness and accountability in the allocation of financial resources, the maintenance and repair of school facilities, and the planning and construction of new school sites.

Local voters have affirmatively supported a host of school facility bonds that have no historical precedent. We are in the middle of an unprecedented - and necessary - wave of public spending on school facilities in the state, particularly in metropolitan Los Angeles. This investment of billions of public dollars represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address place-based inequities that we now know affect the trajectory of children's lives as much or more than does providing a roof over a classroom seat.

Over the last five years, for example, voters in Los Angeles County have approved local school bonds totaling more than $9.5 billion, while voters statewide have approved another $34 billion in school bonds. This unmatched commitment of public dollars includes a $3.8- billion Los Angeles Unified School District bond and a $12-billion state school facilities bond approved as recently as March 2, 2004. This money - and still more - is needed after years of neglect to relieve intense overcrowding and educate the future workforce of our region and state. In the Los Angeles school district alone, an indisputable need exists for 200,000 new classrooms - 40,000 of which have yet to be funded - and 200 new public schools.

However, no bond issue will accomplish much under the current management culture of state and local education bureaucracies. Education of children cannot be separated from other issues affecting children. Because students' lives do not stop at the schoolhouse door, schools cannot either. But agencies seldom reach across their artificial boundariesSimilarly, although public health and urban planning emerged with the common goal of preventing outbreaks of infectious disease, there is little overlap between the fields today. The separation of the fields has contributed to uncoordinated efforts to address the health of urban populations and a general failure to recognize the links between the built environment and health disparities facing low-income populations and people of color. Unhealthy children, children who lack the after-school and extracurricular support so crucial to success, children who enter kindergarten without the ability and tools to learn in a school setting - make poor students, and are woefully shortchanged by a system that cannot look beyond the classroom. Thus, an approach to fundamental equity that extends beyond dollar- for-dollar formulas must examine, to be comprehensive, the full portfolio of children's needs - needs that demand attention beyond the schoolhouse.

These needs include safe recreational areas, access to after-school programs, preschool, and health care, as well as a supportive and vibrant community. A broad examination reveals what has been all too absent from school facilities planning: that co-location of basic social services with schools creates synergies; that when families can safely and efficiently address more of their children's needs at a single site integrated into their community, they are more likely to do so, to the benefit of communities, families and their children.

From this revelation comes the wherewithal to provide true equity of educational opportunity. By making schools the centers of our communities, by integrating and co-siting other key community services with public schools, and by addressing the needs of communities and their children when they extend beyond the schoolhouse door, we can begin to fully realize the promise of educational equity for all. For the past six years, New Schools/Better Neighborhoods has worked to demonstrate the potential of community-centered schools to provide concrete improvement in children's educational opportunity in dense urban and inner-suburban neighborhoods.

This report shares the results of NSBN's efforts to date and hopefully provides some guidance for other education advocates nationwide. Among other lessons, we've learned that to build the capacity to develop schools as centers of community, public policy must fundamentally - and radically - change to accommodate a holistic vision of public education and the role of the community. The core of the issue is that current practices, policies and governing structures that define public education's relationship to the broader community are inadequate to meet the demands for equal opportunity.

At a time when state and local governments are facing severe budget constraints, they are unusually open to the leveraging of scarce public dollars. There is an urgent need, in fact, to develop new arrangements and incentives that encourage increased collaboration between neighborhood residents, schools, local government agencies, civic and community-based organizations. Just as teachers must learn new skills to keep up with students' changing needs and schools need to modernize, our public institutions need to develop new planning approaches, policies, and governing structures that allow us to spend public tax dollars in a collaborative way to maximize their effect.

The case studies presented in the latter half of this report illustrate effective current examples of this kind of leverage in action. The cases serve as much more than mere anecdotes. They represent a practical and replicable model for community-centered school development that smartly leverages scarce public dollars to realize better educational outcomes, healthier neighborhoods, and meaningful equity for all children.