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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Inner-city schools aren't underfunded any more

Abbott Elementary, a popular ABC sitcom about teachers at an inner-city Philadelphia school, is "entertaining but not elucidating" about public education, writes Robert Pondiscio, author of How the Other Half Learns, on Education Next.

The fictional school is beset by "lack of funding, outdated equipment, and a staff that is overworked and underpaid," yet dedicated to their students, writes Pondiscio, who once taught fifth graders in the Bronx.

It's a sitcom, not a documentary, he writes.

The show’s idea of a "disruptive student" is a child who calls out off-topic references to a TV show in class while his classmates are sitting in rapt attention to the teacher’s science lesson.
. . . The child is sent to the office of the principal, a vain, self-absorbed, and ineffective figure who commands little respect from her staff. When she sends the child back to class with a toy, the rest of the class erupts. That’s his punishment? Now they, too, want to be sent to the principal’s office.
OK, so that part is realistic.

In the second season, Abbott loses students to a new charter school that "is filled with new books, French classes, a new computer lab, and more — in contrast to Abbott, which . . . is 'underfunded,' not badly managed," Pondiscio writes.

Most charters have less to spend per student than district schools not more.

But it's just a TV show, Pondiscio concludes. "If every district-run school in Philadelphia were like Abbott Elementary, you wouldn’t put your kid in a charter. Or teach in one."

Abbott Elementary teachers visit a nearby charter school that's better equipped and freshly painted.

Is education funding unequal? Not any more, writes Adam Tyner as part of Fordham's Think Again series challenging conventional wisdom. In recent years, with help from federal funding, spending has risen dramatically and equalized for students from low- and high-income families.

However, equal funding doesn't necessarily mean equal education quality. Providing some resources, such as high-quality teachers, "costs more in schools that serve more disadvantaged student populations," Tyner writes.

"Students from poor families generally attend better-funded schools than students from wealthier families, and disparities in outcomes between student groups can no longer be attributed to funding gaps," he concludes. "The effectiveness of increased education funding faces diminishing returns in some places." Other policy changes may have more impact.

Many years ago, I asked an education researcher how much extra funding it would take to equalize achievement for children living in poverty. With money alone, it would be insanely, impossibly expensive, he said.

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