Matt Miller - The Archives
Nixon's the One—to Imitate on Education
New York Times, December 28, 2008
Why Obama Should Nationalize School Funding A Little

LOCAL control of schooling—which means local financing of schools—is an injustice, masked as a virtue, so deeply ingrained in the American mind that no politician in either party dare challenge it. But America's obsession with local finance, which made perfect sense in the 19th century, is now sinking us morally and economically. To fix it, Barack Obama needs to steal an idea from Richard Nixon.

Drive around Chicago, Detroit or most other big cities and you'll see dilapidated schools staffed largely by rookie teachers. The districts spend, say, $10,000 a child. Twenty minutes up the road you'll find suburban schools that sport Olympic-quality pools, Broadway-style (or maybe Off Broadway) theaters and the best teachers in the state. Those schools spend more like $17,000 per pupil.

This is what local control hath wrought, with financing schemes under which less than 10 percent of the money spent on primary and secondary education comes from the federal government. The grim equation by which accident of birth determines educational quality in the United States is straightforward. The poorer the district and the state, the lower the local tax base, with less money for students. No other advanced nation tolerates such inequities.

Money isn't everything. Some high-spending districts, like Washington and Newark, are dens of mismanagement. But communities like these are distracting exceptions. If you compare most poor, urban areas to their nearby affluent suburbs, the suburbs typically spend thousands of dollars more per pupil.

Because big chunks of district budgets go to teachers' salaries, local financing means we systematically assign the greenest, least-qualified teachers in America to the children who need great teachers the most. Research shows that after a few years in such classrooms, these children never catch up.

In the early 19th century, the property tax was considered the fairest way to pay for schooling. Property was the main form of wealth, and rich and poor people didn't live in separate taxing communities. The wealthy paid more than the middle class and the poor paid nothing, yet all enjoyed access to the same public schools.

Since World War II, however, we have segregated ourselves into a multitude of tiny tax enclaves. The last important official to look hard at the consequences was Richard Nixon. His commission on school finance, headed by the chairman of Procter & Gamble, issued a report in 1972 that urged states to equalize financing disparities, and proposed spending a little federal cash to help.

Nixon's commissioner of education said publicly that the federal government should pay 25 percent to 30 percent of the cost of public education. His domestic policy staff considered a new national tax, with the proceeds distributed to states that drastically reduced state and local property taxes while closing the financing gaps among their school districts.

In the end, of course, Nixon found he had bigger problems to deal with. But he left a blueprint for Mr. Obama to follow. The federal government contributed just $45 billion of the $488 billion spent on primary and secondary schools in 2004 and 2005 (the most recent data available). That's just nine cents of the nation's education dollar.

Going to 25 percent to 30 percent of the overall tab by using a Nixonian revenue-sharing plan would lift the federal contribution by $80 billion to $100 billion a year, and replace an equivalent amount of state and local taxes. A little more federal money might be needed to sweeten the pot, round up the votes and give a boost to the poorest schools.

Federal cash could also be offered to lift teacher salaries for high-poverty schools. States or districts that accept the money would have to allow higher pay for the best teachers or those in scarce specialties like math and science, defer or eliminate tenure (or link it to student achievement gains), and make it easier to fire bad teachers. These districts could pay top teachers up to $150,000 a year, attracting a new generation of talent to America's toughest classrooms.

Mr. Obama says rebuilding rundown schools will be part of his stimulus plan. That's a start, but a one-time construction boon can't solve the perennial woes caused by the very structure of American school finance.

At a moment when we've basically nationalized the banking, mortgage and insurance industries, a little nationalization of school operating costs is in tune with the times.