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Host of Problems Often Displace Learning in Poverty-Plagued Schools : Education: In areas of hunger, violence and neglect, just getting children to class is a victory. Once there, they may find woeful facilities.

December 01, 1991|TAMARA HENRY and WILLIAM M. WELCH | ASSOCIATED PRESS

For six months, Shirley Carter started work the same way--with a phone call to a fourth-grader in a poor San Diego neighborhood to make sure he got to school.

She would let the phone ring until he woke up and answered. Then he would get himself dressed and trudge off to school, his mother never awaking from the previous night's drinking.

"One morning something came up and I couldn't call," said Carter, a truant officer whose job and obsession is to keep troubled kids in school. "But he had gotten so used to me calling him, he got up anyway and came on in."

In neighborhoods seared by poverty, violence and neglect, just getting children to school is a victory.

But once at school, these children are put at a further disadvantage by a system that produces an impoverished learning environment that matches the poor conditions at home.

Since school districts are financed primarily at the local level with property taxes, spending on schools can vary greatly. Affluent districts with large tax bases have ample money. Poor districts do not.

Spending can vary even within the same district.

But the disparity in finances is not the only adversity that these children must overcome. Valuable teaching time must be spent addressing needs more basic than an education: decent meals, clean clothes, a pair of shoes, a responsible adult.

Widening the gap even further is the inability of parents to pay for extras--like air conditioning--from their own pockets, the high cost of transporting kids in poor rural districts and the lingering effects of violence in and around the schools.

Visits to schools in rich and poor communities in California and Virginia provide graphic, painful evidence of what the disparities can mean.

As a third-grader at Halifax Elementary School in Virginia, Charles Sands liked to draw Ninja Turtles but only got art instruction once every three weeks from an itinerant teacher who made the rounds of several schools.

If Charles had attended school across the state in affluent Fairfax County, he might have been taught by a professional artist.

Economic disparities have fueled lawsuits in at least 20 states, charging fundamental unfairness in educational opportunity because of the way school districts are financed. Others already have dealt with the problem.

Some experts suggest shifting away from local property taxes to broader sources such as state income taxes, or a more equal state redistribution of local property taxes.

In a landmark 1971 decision, the California Supreme Court ruled that the state's system for financing schools denied equal protection to children living in property-poor school districts.

Other states were energized to take action.

School finance systems in Kentucky, Montana, Texas and New Jersey have since been ruled unconstitutional. Each state was ordered to equalize spending between affluent and poor districts.

Even so, the national education policy that is evolving in Washington--with its new goals and push for national standards--tends to overlook the disparities that make school districts inherently unable to be equal. In the federal government's deficit-dominated atmosphere, money or increased federal aid to close the gap are seldom mentioned.

"Nationally, the view is everyone should be educated," said Richard G. Salmon, a Virginia Tech professor who is an expert on public school finances. "President Bush implies all education should be high quality, but when you look at different states, you see education is not equal. In fact, it's not anywhere near equal within the states."

Consider:

Students in rural Charlotte County, Va., pay as much as $40 a year to rent textbooks. Rooms in their schools are sometimes flooded by thunderstorms. Libraries have been sliced up to make classrooms.

Many of the rural Southside Virginia schools do not employ nurses.

Across the state and a giant economic divide, students in Fairfax County attend classes in schools with free textbooks and, in many cases, gyms, nurse's offices and libraries. A fourth-grader can take lessons in stringed musical instruments.

And in the real measure of achievement--standardized test scores--the schools in Fairfax, in the suburbs of the nation's capital, outperform the rural districts. Much may be due to their more affluent and educated parents, but that is only an additional disadvantage for the rural children.

Achievement test scores vary by as many as 57 percentage points from one county to another, and percentages of high school graduates planning to continue their education vary by nearly 53 percentage points.

"If you come from a very affluent area, then you're exposed to much more and better things. And we just simply think that's wrong," said Supt. James Blevins of Nottoway County, Va.

Added to that is the problem of violence.

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