Correction: Money given by Ellen from J.C. Penney

Ellen DeGeneres just hosted on her television show a teacher from a Pennsylvania public school district that ran out of money — prompting unionized teachers to vote to work without pay — and handed her a $100,000 check for her school donated by J.C. Penney.

And it was just six weeks ago when pop star Justin Bieber, appearing on The Ellen Show, gave a $100,000 check to the principal of a high-poverty school in Las Vegas who had gone to extremes to help her students and their families with food, electric bills and more to help ensure they could get an education.

Ellen, the new funding stream for public education.

If you think that’s a joke, it is, but the way public school systems are funded is probably no less nutty than letting Ellen do it. The system essentially ensures that wealthy areas get more money for their public school children and less for students from poor families — the very kids who need more help. And if you think that federal Title 1 money that goes to poor schools makes up the difference, you are wrong.

Sara Ferguson, a teacher at Columbus Elementary School in Pennsylvania's Chester Upland School District, sat with first lady Michelle Obama during President Obama’s State of the Union speech last week after the district’s plight became news.

Ferguson was one of the teachers who agreed to work for free after the district ran out of money; the state later provided some and has said it would make sure the schools in the system stay open until the end of the school year. DeGeneres heard Ferguson’s story and invited her on the show Thursday, the same day Michelle Obama appeared to talk about healthy eating and physical fitness. Ferguson got a $100,000 for her school, money donated by J.C. Penney Co.

The main source of funding for public education is property taxes, which explains to a large extent the inequities between and within states. State governments also spend differing amounts on their school systems, and the federal government offers differing amounts of money depending on a range of criteria. This isn’t, incidentally, the way other nations with successful public education systems fund their schools.

It is very nice that there are people like DeGeneres and Bieber who are willing to write out big checks to needy public schools. Good for them.

Yet there is something sad and scary when a check from an entertainer or private company is seen, in history’s wealthiest country, as a godsend to a school principal who herself has spent her own money trying to help her students, or to a school where teachers agreed to work for free for free because of budget cuts, bad management, and other factors.

Twenty-two percent of American children live in poverty, and the emphasis of modern school reform ignores this fact. As long as this is the case, there aren’t enough $100,000 checks from famous people to go around.


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