NYT article on Union Schools well-intentioned, misguided

13 April 2017
Giselle Willis, Managing Editor

The New York Times article should have mentioned more about property tax and population discrepancies between Union’s district and others to accurately portray the school’s successes.

Last week, the New York Times featured our town of Tulsa, Oklahoma twice. Once was in an article about how Trump supporters remain stalwart despite standing to lose from Trump’s proposed budget cuts. The other mention came in an article about Oklahoma’s public education system. But don’t cringe with preemptive embarrassment yet. Besides a brief note about Oklahoma’s dismal education funding, the article is a glowing review of Union Public Schools.

I appreciate the intent of this article. The writer, David L. Kirp, is defending public schools against Secretary of Education Betsy Devos’ preferred alternatives: voucher and charter schools. He also highlights the spectacular work Union is doing regarding its community schools. These schools are part of a 2006 initiative to provide equitable opportunities for students of low socioeconomic status. The Union community has unified behind these centers, which offer a variety of after-school extracurriculars, food and clothing delivery, counseling, and a day care center for teenage students with babies.

Union deserves recognition for its programming, but the writer’s enthusiasm made Union’s success seem unrelated to its finances. He said this is what can be achieved when a public school “takes the time to invest in a culture of high expectations, recruit top-flight professionals and develop ties between schools and the community.”

This advice is always worthwhile; however, he made little to no mention of Union’s large property tax revenue and smaller population. To expect similar results but ignore the financial discrepancy between Union’s district and say, the Tulsa Public Schools district, is unfair. To make it sound as though Tulsa Public Schools’ problems could be solved by simply taking the time to invest in students is an injustice.

First, a fun look at property tax revenue. Basically, if your house is worth a lot, you’re paying more taxes on it, and those taxes specifically go to your neighborhood school. So if you live in a richer neighborhood, then the schools near you will have more money than schools in poorer neighborhoods.

Now, when I cross reference Union’s zip codes with the city of Tulsa’s real estate data, it looks like the most expensive housing in Tulsa falls within the Union school district. Houses with the 74137 zip code are in the Union district and sell for a median price of $278,000. In general, houses in south Tulsa sell for more and are in the Union district; houses in north Tulsa sell for less and are in the Tulsa Public Schools district. Houses with the 74130 zip code in north Tulsa sell for a median price of $30,000.

Oklahoma, in an attempt to counter this discrepancy, uses a special formula when allocating state aid (whereas other states do much less in this regard; here’s looking at you, Texas). This formula accounts for property taxes and gives less state aid to districts with higher property values.

The property tax effect is, in fact, strong enough that when Google opened a data center in Pryor, Oklahoma, area property values skyrocketed to the point that Pryor Public Schools is now one of 35 (out of 516) school districts in the state that does not qualify for any state aid.

Although Union consequently receives less state aid than Tulsa, each Union student sees more of that money because there are fewer of them. For the 2016-2017 school year, Union has around 15,960 students and Tulsa has about 38,900. During the 2015-2016 school year, for example, Union got to spend hundreds of dollars more per student. It spent around $2,557 of state aid per student, while Tulsa spent $2,180 per student.

Thus, in terms of the property tax revenue/student population ratio, it’s not surprising that Union has managed to do pretty well for itself. The NYT writer seemed impressed that Union Public Schools only spends $7,605 of state and local money combined on each student per year. Indeed, New York spends three times as much. However, New York is also one of the states that spends the most on education because it is also one of the states with the highest cost of living.

Granted, the NYT article also mentioned how “contributions from the community modestly augment the budget” and that the 2016 graduation rate for Union is substantially higher than it was “when the community was wealthier” in 2007. Yet these community contributions cannot be overlooked. It is because the Union district could afford to invest in infrastructure back in 2007 that we can see its success now.

Also, last week Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist and district officials discussed ways of offsetting project budget cuts for the upcoming school year. Possibilities include consolidating three elementary schools into one, adding “furlough days” — meaning two fewer days in the school year — and consolidating and cutting athletic programs. Union simply has not faced cuts to that degree.

While the article says Union’s “not-so-secret sauce” is to “start out with an academically solid foundation, then look for ways to keep getting better,” I think there’s more to the sauce than that. I don’t want teachers and administrators to get discouraged when they’re repeatedly told to just work harder. The real villain here is education funding systems, not the individuals struggling to work with what they’ve been given.