The View From the U.K.

Fixing the education system.
Sept. 9 2008 12:39 PM

The View From the U.K.

Sometimes it takes the perspective of an outsider to put a thorny issue like school funding into perspective.

Michael Barber was Tony Blair's chief education adviser, and he helped push through a major overhaul of Britain's public-education system. Now he's an educational consultant with an increasingly high profile in the United States. When I was reporting in New Orleans earlier this year, Paul Pastorek , the Louisiana superintendent of education, told me Barber's ideas had had a big influence on him. And as Sam Dillon reported in the Times last year, Joel Klein, New York City's school superintendent, is also a fan of Barber's; he "asked Sir Michael to address hundreds of New York principals at Lincoln Center about school improvement strategies."

In an interview with Education Sector, a Washington think tank, Barber listed some of the problems he saw in the American education system, including this rather jumbo-sized one:

The other fundamental flaw that I think is absolutely devastating in the U.S. is that because so much of the school system depends on very local taxation, the distribution of funding is inequitable. You can see how it originates in 19th century American history, but it is a big problem. Even the best education laws are only leveling up to the same funding per pupil so that high-poverty areas have funding on par with other communities. Whereas, in any sensible system you'd spend more money per pupil in a high-poverty area than another area. The Conservatives [in Britain] were in power from 1979 to 1997, and they never questioned that. They always thought it was absolutely right to spend more on areas of high poverty than other areas.

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It seems so clear and straightforward (you can almost hear the British accent): Poor kids need more help in school than rich kids, so the government should devote more resources to their education. Let's do it! But a plan like Barber's would require a complete rethinking and reorganization of our approach to funding public education. And that doesn't seem likely to happen any time soon.

Paul Tough is the author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character and Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest To Change Harlem and America. He is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a speaker on various topics including education, poverty, parenting, and politics.