Across the country, poor and minority students face myriad challenges, including food insecurity, inadequate preventative health care or having primary care givers away from home for long hours due to multiple low-wage jobs.
They also miss out on educational opportunities because they attend chronically underfunded schools. Due to an inherently unequal system of school funding across the country, predominantly white school districts received $23 billion more in state and local funding than nonwhite school districts in 2016.
This alarming and excessive inequality in American public school funding stems from a basic design flaw: local taxes fund local schools. Thus, tax revenues in wealthier, mostly white, areas with higher property values generate significantly more money for schools, even when their tax rates are lower. Poor, more diverse, areas can attempt to levy taxes even to ridiculous levels (for example, Detroit’s effective property tax rate is a whopping 3.81%, versus Michigan’s overall rate of 1.5%) but still cannot produce enough money to send to schools.
Those with Less get Less
This funding gap plays out between states, within states and sometimes even within school districts. Federal funding balances out some funding disparity, but that money is not meant to make up for state and local inequalities but rather to offset the extra costs of educating needy students.
Because these funding gaps magnify racial disparities and often cement a student’s socioeconomic status before he or she finishes grade school, this issue belies the notion of the American dream as achievable for everyone.
Systemically underfunded schools send a tiny fraction of their students on to higher education. In Chicago, 75 percent of public school students graduate from high school, but only 19 percent are projected to graduate from college within 10 years. Of those, the prospects for racial minorities are even worse: the school district anticipates only 10 percent of young black men and 13 percent of Latino men will earn a degree in that time.
State by state, the amount spent per capita varies extremely, from Utah on the lowest end spending less than $7,000 per pupil in 2016, to New York spending more than three times that: $22,366. Even with cost of living differences across states, students from Utah and New York will eventually compete for admission to the same colleges and jobs at the same companies. How will their unequal K-12 educations have prepared them?
The ability to so accurately predict a child’s college success rate based on race and zip code indicates of how deep and prevalent the problems of poverty and racial discrimination run. It elevates school funding equality as the most pressing civil rights issue of our day and makes equalizing school funding a key lever for a more just society.
A $100,000 Difference
So, what does an inadequate education look and feel like for elementary and high school students? In Pennsylvania, where the funding gap between high-wealth and low-wealth districts is the largest in the nation and growing, it means nearly $4,000 more is spent per child per year, or nearly $100,000 more per year on a classroom of 25 students.
It means more and better staff, facilities and resources such as curriculum and technology.
Time and again studies have pointed to teacher quality as the largest determinant of student achievement. Disparate school funding means the students who already have the most advantages end up with the best educated, most experienced and highest paid teachers.
In suburban Lower Merion, PA, the median household income is $127,125 and the poverty rate hovers near 5.2 percent. Here, teachers earn nearly $100,000 per year on average. With these salaries, Lower Merion schools can afford to attract and retain the best quality teachers who only get better with time. The average teacher in this school system boasts 15 years of experience and 92 percent have an advanced degree.
Teacher vacancies happen infrequently not only because Lower Merion students and families less frequently face the desperate issues of homelessness, foster care, and discrimination, but also because Lower Merion teachers can afford to care for their own families on their generous salaries.
By contrast, just across City Line Avenue in Philadelphia, the median household income stands at $40,649 and a full quarter of the city’s residents, or about 400,000 people, live in poverty. Philadelphia’s teachers face challenges inherent in educating poor students, new arrivals to the United States and a high percentage of students with special needs. These students may present various misbehaviors, struggle with the effects of trauma, or be unwilling to trust new teachers who come and go so quickly.
Instead of earning extra for meeting extra demands, Philadelphia’s teachers make far less money per year than their counterparts in Lower Merion. The average teacher’s salary is $67,000. As a result, the Philadelphia school district loses around 27 percent of its teachers each year due to burnout and attrition. So, year after year, the students who need the best, most experienced teachers, frequently get novice teachers who do not last in their schools or even the profession.
Disparities in school funding can also be seen in school facilities. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, localities carry more than 80 percent of the burden for capital costs of building and improving schools. So, while wealthier areas have new school buildings or renovations featuring state of the art technology labs, tracks and swimming pools, poor areas suffer.
Outdated and underfunded schools can also expose students to environmental risks that make them sick, such as exposure to lead paint, lead pipes and asbestos. The ceilings and roofs of these buildings sometimes leak, crumble or cave in, and temperature control issues reach dangerous levels as boiler systems fail to heat classrooms above 40 degrees in winter or 5-year-olds roast in un-air conditioned classrooms when the heat index tops 98 degrees.
To top this all off, well-funded schools can afford more computers, counselors, psychologists, gifted and talented program coordinators, research-based, proven curriculums, and comprehensive training for teachers to effectively teach that curriculum. Underfunded schools cannot count on any of these resources. Sometimes they cannot even count on having the most basic learning tools, such as copy paper, pencils or pencil sharpeners. Teachers either pay out of pocket for these materials, raise money online through websites like donorschoose.org or simply go without.
Equitable School Funding Starts at the Ballot Box
So, what can everyday citizens do to advocate for equal funding of all public schools and help students, teachers and families in these cash-strapped districts?
First and foremost, participate in local, statewide and federal elections to support candidates who believe in public—not charter or voucher—education. Even seemingly esoteric contests for, say, state supreme court justices become vitally important when issues of free and fair public education arise.
For example, the supreme court of New Jersey ruled in 1985 and 1990 that the K-12 education offered in its poor communities was unconstitutionally subpar and ordered the state to fund a handful of poor school districts to the average level of the state’s wealthiest districts.
Voting for and lobbying state legislators matters, too. Pennsylvania’s state legislature passed a bipartisan fair funding formula in 2016 that accounts for students in poverty, those with special needs, or who are learning English as a second language and who leave for a district for charter schools. However, the state only distributes new money, or about 10 percent of state aid, according to this formula and distributes the other 90 percent based on 28-year-old student population data.
Obviously, voting for the nation’s highest office profoundly impacts school funding. Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, advocates dramatically underfunding all public schools in a bid to privatize education. She recently pushed to cut $7.1 billion from the federal education budget and instead divert up to $50 billion over ten years into school choice voucher systems and $500 million of federal aid to charter schools. These policies would have an outsized effect on schools relying heavily on federal funding due to inadequate state and local dollars.
Inspiring and unlocking the potential of all our children through education improves our country’s morale and strengthens our economy. Too many bright students languish with their gifts unused—and will continue to until we give them the equal educational opportunities they deserve.