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Amicus, Not So Brief

When Bruce Baker and Preston Green met in Professor Craig Richards' dissertation conferences at TC in 1995, neither suspected they were beginning a conversation that would last for years--let alone a collaboration that would help change school financing in the U.S.

When Bruce Baker and Preston Green met in Professor Craig Richards' dissertation conferences at TC in 1995, neither suspected they were beginning a conversation that would last for years--let alone a collaboration that would help change school financing in the U.S.

Baker had been a middle school science teacher at the Fieldston School in the Bronx when he flipped through a TC catalogue and hit upon a course called School Finance Policy. It caught his eye because, in a previous job as a coordinator of gifted and talented programs in New Hampshire, he'd become interested in how politics at the doughnut shop level can drive the allocation of school funds.

Green had graduated from Columbia Law School and decided to attend TC after passing the Virginia State Bar: "I was always interested in educational issues and figured that if I went to TC, I could find a way to combine education and law that would be meaningful for me." By the time they met in Richards' seminar, Baker was writing about the use of advanced computing methods to forecast educational spending, while Green was analyzing the performance of a for-profit organization that had taken over several schools in Baltimore, Maryland.

By fall 1999, Baker, now an assistant professor at the University of Kansas, was serving on a panel charged with recommending improvements to the Kansas State legislature's controversial reapportionment of school district funding. He was contacted by plaintiffs in one of several lawsuits against the state, who suggested to him that the reapportionment had created new disparities that fell along racial lines. Skeptical at first, Baker says he "ran the numbers and found they were right." By weighting appropriations toward small rural districts and districts with newer facilities, Kansas was shortchanging its poorest students, most of whom were children of color.

Baker then called in several colleagues for a brainstorming session, including Green, then an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and an emerging authority on educational access legal issues. One of Green's articles, on affirmative action, would eventually be cited in an amicus brief filed by the Massachusetts School of Law in the pivotal Supreme Court case Grutter v. Bollinger. He would also co-author Charter Schools and the Law: Establishing New Legal Relationships, which remains the only book that deals with legal issues pertaining to charter schools.

The plaintiffs won their case, finally forcing the Kansas state legislature to address decades of underfunding. Baker and Green continued to discuss the legal and policy issues of school financing. "We'd kept talking to each other since TC, hatching ideas whenever we ran into each other in airports or at educational events," Green says. "We'd realized we had complementary skills. Bruce is really great at the quantitative analysis, and I was becoming pretty good at the legal side of things, so we just kept talking about these issues."

In 2002, the collaboration kicked up a notch. The pair published their first paper together. Titled "Circumventing Rodriguez"--a reference to a Supreme Court case that had upheld property taxes as a basis for apportioning greater levels of school funds to wealthier districts--the paper argued that the disparities created by the Kansas State legislature's apportionment plan could indeed be challenged in federal court as racially discriminatory.

Several companion papers followed, including "Tricks of the Trade," which argued that Alabama, too, was using indirect methods to achieve racially skewed school funding results--and even worse, may have been doing so with malice aforethought.

"There's an assumption that states just haven't been aggressive enough in allocating aid to school districts with lower property wealth," Baker says. "But what Preston and I started to find is that in some cases it's more twisted than that. State legislatures have come up with ways to intentionally allocate the funding away from those who need it most."

To date, Baker and Green have collaborated on six papers exploring that contention, as well as numerous presentations and a forthcoming book co-authored with Craig Richards.

"A lot of our research tries to debunk received wisdom on school finance and on funding disparities," says Green, now an associate professor in the Department of Education Policy Studies at Penn State. "First, we look at what are the common understandings and then, after everyone else is done, we dig  under the rock."

Their former dissertation advisor awards them high marks. "The great thing about mentoring is you get to watch two young men become highly competent scholars in their own right," says Richards, who now chairs TC's Department of Organization and Leadership. "If you love being a professor, as I do, it's gratifying to see your students go on to be so successful. A bonus for everyone is that they've become friends and co-researchers."

For their part, Baker and Green believe talking with others in the field is essential to helping more schoolchildren across the country. "Right now, we're moving incrementally, but it's going to take some more collective effort to figure out how to make the bigger changes."

Toward that end, Green is working on creating a joint education and law degree program at Penn State. "When I went to TC, I kept thinking, -'I know there 's a way to combine education and law, I just don't know how,'" Green says. "Well, I have to say that now I really am combining those interests, and TC helped me find that connection."

Published Thursday, Sep. 28, 2006


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