The Haves and Haves-not of Education - Part 2


I abhor over-simplifying complex issues.  And as I noted in Part 1, there are plenty of politicians who will intentionally do just that so they can rally their base and solidify their position of power.  In contrast to these politically convenient narratives, any meaningful discussion on inequality in the education of our nation's children must begin with recognizing these complexities.  This is especially true when applied to a central issue in this overall debate, and that is school funding.  Bill Gates produced a short video that serves as an excellent introduction to the multifaceted nature of school funding formulas, or what the narrator called the perfect example of a "wicked problem".  With that said, something else that I despise is when people use complexity as an excuse for not recognizing the obvious.  Some degree of clarity is possible as we work our way through complex issues.  And clarity is precisely what we find when we look at the roots of educational inequality, especially as it pertains to funding.

The roots of inequality

Racism and ethnocentrism run deep in the American DNA, even if they seem so obviously antithetical to our stated values and ideals.  This toxic psychology has certainly been stronger and more explicit at times in our history.  We have made progress against these demons, though unfortunately they seem to be on the rise yet again as evidenced by the fearful, anti-immigrant rhetoric spewing from our current President's mouth and Twitter account.  But no matter what your opinion is on the present state of our society and these dehumanizing ideologies, there can be no doubt that many racial and ethnic minorities are still living with systemic disadvantages which trace their origins back to our more explicitly bigoted policies of the past.  More on this in a minute.  But first, let's go back and master the basics.

School funding 101

How do we pay for public education?  Funding for public education comes from essentially three sources: Federal, state, and local government.  The break down is that the Federal government covers 10%, with state and local governments splitting the rest of the cost at 45% each.  In a state like California, the State and Federal government contribute slightly higher percentages.  Now when it comes to local funding, we need to understand that the vast majority of this money comes from property taxes.  When you have a minute, check out this short video produced by Kansas City Public Television as an excellent crash course on the subject.

reverse engineering inequality

The problem, of course, is that there is not relative economic equality when it comes to property values.  According to a piece in The Atlantic, "Nationally, high-poverty districts spend 15.6 percent less per student than low-poverty districts do, according to U.S. Department of Education. Lower spending can irreparably damage a child’s future, especially for kids from poor families."  It then went on to paint a bleak picture of the consequences of this form of economic favoritism as seen in public schools in Connecticut:

Testimony...bears out the differences between poor areas like New Britain, Danbury, Bridgeport, and East Hartford, and wealthier areas like New Canaan, Greenwich, and Darien. Electives, field trips, arts classes, and gifted and talented programs available in wealthier districts have been cut in poorer ones. New Britain, where 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, receives half as much funding per special-education student as Darien. In Bridgeport, where class sizes hover near the contractual maximum of 29, students use 15-to 20-year-old textbooks; in New London, high-school teachers must duct tape windows shut to keep out the wind and snow and station trash cans in the hallways to collect rain. Where Greenwich’s elementary school library budget is $12,500 per year (not including staffing), East Hartford’s is zero.

This especially impacts racial and ethnic minorities, who are far more likely to live in poorer communities in comparison to their white counterparts.  Then we take a step back in time and ask another question: Why are they more likely to live in poorer communities?  This leads us to the practice of 'redlining', which was implemented in the 1930's.  For those of you who are unfamiliar, it was another tool of racial and ethnic segregation in which surveyors would mark out with a red line certain neighborhoods that were deemed least desirable and therefore of lesser value.  They just so happened to be where black people, Jews, or Irish Catholics used to live.  Among many other harmful results to the populations who lived in these areas, it tended to make home ownership and upward mobility a near impossibility.  The level of credit that would be required for them to live on the nicer side of the tracks was unattainable due to their low income and the dismal value of their current residence.  Of course, it was highly unlikely that they were given the kind of quality education that would have prepared them for higher earning jobs in the first place since white communities continued to hold most of the wealth.  Therein lies the viscous cycle of poverty.  (Check out when you can this NPR video on redlining.)

It would take the blood, sweat, tears, and even lives of the Civil Rights Movement of the 50's and 60's to end, among other injustices, the physical segregation of black students from white students (1954's Brown vs Board of Education).  Redlining wasn't made explicitly illegal until the Fair Housing Act of 1968, six years before I was born.  Many would argue that it still persists to this day.

Some Hope on the Horizon

As discussed in the original Stanford University report that I shared in Part 1, there is some positive news to report.  "Academic performance for all students improved between 1990 and 2015, and black and Hispanic students experienced the fastest improvement."  This can be credited in part to targeted Federal assistance through the Department of Education's Title I designation or through the Department of Health and Human Service's Head Start program.  Still the same report admits that progress is slow if not stalled when it comes to other desired academic outcomes.  And in the end, Federal funding will still continue to constitute the lowest percentage of funding for our children's education.  So what can be done to accelerate the improvements we have seen while addressing the underlying causes of systemic disparity in funding of public education?  We will dive into some possible answers to these and other questions in next month's Profiles in Courage.