The Inherent Inequality of How America Funds Public Schools

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. 

“The correlation between educational attainment and civic participation is strong and well-documented: educated citizens have more opportunities to obtain and exercise civic skills, are more interested in and informed about politics, and in turn, are more likely to vote” - Stanford 2017

“The correlation between educational attainment and civic participation is strong and well-documented: educated citizens have more opportunities to obtain and exercise civic skills, are more interested in and informed about politics, and in turn, are more likely to vote” -Stanford 2017

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. 

“Chicago Public Schools has been especially hard hit, with annual budget deficits in the hundreds of millions of dollars.” - Washington Post

“Chicago Public Schools has been especially hard hit, with annual budget deficits in the hundreds of millions of dollars.” -Washington Post

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. 

“The proven long-term benefits of reducing class sizes—achievement gains and higher graduation.” - National Education Association

“The proven long-term benefits of reducing class sizes—achievement gains and higher graduation.” -National Education Association

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. 

“Right now, in many states, schools with the highest-need students receive fewer resources than those serving the most affluent,” - National Education Association

“Right now, in many states, schools with the highest-need students receive fewer resources than those serving the most affluent,” -National Education Association

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. 

“People with higher levels of education and higher income have lower rates of many chronic diseases compared to those with less education and lower income levels,” - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

“People with higher levels of education and higher income have lower rates of many chronic diseases compared to those with less education and lower income levels,” -Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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. 

The Equality Act Aims to Ensure Equal Rights for All

The United States of America is founded on the unequivocal belief that all humans are created equal and deserve unequivocal human rights. Although the Founding Fathers initially only intended these rights to go towards landowning white men, over the years, they’ve been extended to protect more and more demographics. Currently, it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, sex, ability status, or religion in the United States. However, there’s still a long way to go. The US still does not have any federal legislation that protects against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. That means that the decision to legally protect against sexuality-based discrimination is left up to individual state governments, but the majority of state governments have passed no such legislation. Only 22 states (including Washington DC) have passed laws that explicitly protect members of the LGBTQ community from employment and housing discrimination. In the remaining 29 states, members of the LGBTQ community can legally be fired or denied housing just for being gay, bisexual, or transgender. Until all Americans are protected from discrimination, including members of the LGBTQ community, we cannot in good faith claim to be a free and equal country.

A 2015 poll found that 63% of LGBTQ Americans reported experiencing some form of discrimination in their personal lives. Almost 50% of LGBTQ Americans have experienced workplace discrimination. 14% have been discriminated against on the housing market, and 8% reported discrimination at school. The unfortunate, infuriating truth is that discrimination is a common, unifying experience among members of the LGBTQ community. The Equality Act, championed by the Human Rights Campaign, seeks to change this unfortunate truth. If it gets passed, the Equality Act will protect all LGBTQ Americans against discrimination in the workplace, the education system, the housing market, and in receiving services because of their gender identity or sexuality. It would amend all preexisting civil rights laws, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fair Housing Act, and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Most importantly, it would allow LGBTQ Americans to exist proudly and publicly, without fear of retribution or discrimination because of who they are.

Many people believe that the fight for LGBTQ rights ended in 2015, when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in all fifty states. Although that was undoubtedly a huge stride forward for the LGBTQ community, the raging debate around the Equality Act proves that there’s still important work to be done. Right now, it’s perfectly legal for employers, landlords, educators, and businesses to discriminate on the basis of sexuality and gender identity. On a pragmatic level, this makes it difficult for LGBTQ Americans to live their lives openly. Coming out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer can be a huge gamble, since LGBTQ people can never be sure how the people around them will react. The worst-case scenario is exactly what the Equality Act seeks to prevent — coming out might mean getting fired from a job, getting denied housing, and uprooting a lifetime’s worth of safety and security. On an ideological level, the fact that it’s perfectly legal to discriminate against LGBTQ people makes it easier to excuse acts of homophobia and transphobia in people’s personal lives. By passing the Equality Act, the federal government would be taking a clear stance in alliance with LGBTQ citizens and residents and against bigotry and hatred. By explicitly supporting the LGBTQ community, the federal government would be taking a step to actively discourage homophobia and transphobia. 

Although the overarching goal of the Equality Act is to prevent discrimination against LGBTQ Americans, many of its subsections seek to help protect the rights of other demographics besides the LGBTQ community. For example, the Equality Act will help protect women from sexual harassment in public spaces, like restaurants, stores, and transportation by requiring businesses and service providers to explicitly address and take measures to prevent gender-based harassment. The Equality Act also seeks to eliminate the Pink Tax, or the practice of arbitrarily charging women higher prices for goods and services, from clothing to car repairs. The Equality Act will also strengthen protections for people of color in public places. Under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, hotels and restaurants are prohibited from discriminating based on race or ethnicity. The Equality Act will extend civil rights protections to ensure that transportation providers, retailers, accountants, and many other types of businesses do not discriminate on the basis of race.

Additionally, the Equality Act will go a long way in protecting LGBTQ youth and parents. Under the Equality Act, all schools that receive any amount of federal funding will no longer be able to discriminate against LGBTQ students. This means that transgender, non-binary, and gender nonconforming students will gain the legal right to use whatever bathroom or locker room best suits their gender identity. It also means that schools will no longer be allowed to prevent students from forming LGBTQ clubs or student organizations. The Equality Act will also have a huge impact on the adoption and foster care system. Currently, adoption agencies and foster care institutions are legally allowed to deny prospective parents from adopting or fostering children because of their sexuality or gender identity. This means that many children in the foster care system are prevented from joining loving, caring, and capable homes, just because their prospective parents or foster parents are gay, lesbian, or transgender. The Equality Act will prohibit child welfare agencies from taking sexual orientation or gender identity into consideration during the foster or adoption process, creating a fairer and less discriminatory child welfare system.

As of 2017, 70% of all Americans, regardless of political affiliation, indicated that they supported laws that would protect the LGBTQ community against discrimination. Despite this widespread support among the American people, there is still considerable pushback against the Equality Act in Congress, the place where support for the bill matters most. Over the past three-and-a-half years, the Equality Act has been repeatedly introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Every time that the bill has been introduced in the past, it has died in committee. Most recently, the Equality Act was introduced to the House of Representatives on March 19, 2019. If you’re interested in doing your part to encourage your local representatives to support this bill, there are several ways that you can get involved. One of the easiest ways to get involved is to call or email your local congressperson. The Human Rights Campaign’s website includes convenient links that help you contact your member of Congress and support the Equality Act by phone or by email. If you’re looking for an even more hands-on approach, you can also become a grassroots lobbyist for the Equality Act. The Human Rights Campaign’s website also provides a 30-minute online lobbying course, which will help prepare you to effectively advocate for the Equality Act. Finally, you can search for events near you, where you can show up and do your part to support equality for all Americans. 

Until the federal government takes an explicit stand in protecting the LGBTQ community from discrimination and harassment, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for LGBTQ Americans to feel safe and respected in their own country. The Equality Act seeks to make good on the ideology of equality that this nation was founded upon, which is why it’s crucial that we support it any way that we can. 

You can learn more about the Equality Act here, or follow the Human Rights Campaign on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

The Case for Reforming Money Bail: Race and Class Bias Persist

The racial and class stratification of this country and how judges allow personal bias to effect decision-making is pervasive, and money bail is no different. 

In 2017, the country’s leading civil rights organization the American Civil Liberties Union started a multi-year campaign to reform the justice system from sentencing and incarceration rates down to the unequal applications of cash bail. 

Source:  ACLU

Source: ACLU

The campaign cites wealth and racial disparities as reasoning for discontinuing money bail, which continues to be an exclusive way for people of relative wealth to cheat the criminal justice system. Black and brown people are doubly attacked by this egregious system because they are both disproportionately poor and face a social paradigm that collectively associates negative ideas with who they are as individuals.  

In a 2018 Harvard analysis of bail decisions in Miami and Philadelphia, researchers found several pieces of evidence that suggested discrimination on behest of black defendants. This evidence is most visible in part-time and inexperienced judges, both black and white, mostly due to an unfounded association of black defendants with high-risk releases. 

Experienced judges are less likely to stereotype black defendants, but the unequal treatment persists when compared to white defendants of similar status and charge. The implications of the study suggest that on-the-job training could have a pivotal role in decreasing these black and white disparities in pretrial detentions, but that only remedies a portion of the problem.

Stereotyping and the association of black people with crime, danger and aggression has been proliferated through the ethos of this country. This bias seeps into every institution. The criminal justice system is just the most materially consequential because a judge’s discretion can have far-reaching impact. 

Aside from racial inequalities, money bail also exacerbates a broken class system that finds economically disadvantaged people, regardless of race, at the crosshairs of a system already stacked against them. 

Source:  Twitter

Source: Twitter

The constitution guarantees equal access to justice, yet money bail bellies this founding principle by eschewing equality in favor of profit. The Prison Policy institute estimates that about 70 percent of jailed people have not been convicted. Their only crime? They can’t afford bail.

Poor people do not have equal access to justice and freedom in the same ways that their wealthier counterparts do. This is further illustrated by the correlation found between pretrial detention and conviction rates in a 2016 study conducted by Yale researchers.

People who are detained pretrial in local and county jails are more likely to be strapped down into a plea bargain and face conviction whereas their monetarily privileged counterparts can afford attorneys to fight their charges. 

This is a gross perversion of the judicial system. Money bail was originally set up as a surety measure, but now it does not access whether a person’s release is risky. It only accesses a person’s ability to fund a bail bondsman. For those who can’t, the trauma and criminogenic effects of detention takes their toll.

One needs to look no further than the Kalief Browder case. In 2010, at the age of 16, Browder was detained by police officers after being accused of stealing a backpack. He would later be indicted and charged by a grand jury despite a substantial lack of evidence. 

Since his family lacked the proper funds to post his $3,000 bail, Browder was booked in Rikers Island where he would stay for three years, the bulk of which was spent in solitary confinement, despite being legally innocent. His case was never, officially, heard by a judge as the prosecution continued to defer the trial until their main witness, a Mexican immigrant, returned to his home country. Browder’s case was dropped in 2013.

Source:  ACLU

Source: ACLU

After two years of freedom, Browder committed suicide outside his mother’s house. He cited his jail time as a trauma he could not overcome; writing extensively about the abuse he suffered at the hands of other inmates and correctional officers. 

The American criminal justice system currently detains about 536,000 people in local jails who have yet to be convicted of a crime. Much like Browder, these people are thrown into a traumatic environment that can have mental and emotional effects that persist long after their release. America’s legally innocent detainees are more than the entire prison population of every developed nation save for China, Brazil and Russia. 

Unlawful pretrial detentions even cost legally innocent people their lives. An investigation by The Huffington Post reviewed every city and local jail in the country and found that the overwhelming majority of jail deaths were people who were legally innocent. People who stayed incarcerated simply because they didn’t have the funds to post bail for offenses they were not even convicted of. 

A justice system that punishes a benighted class is not serving justice, its promulgating inequity.  Effectively, considering people too poor for freedom. A society that makes freedom not only conditional but contingent upon personal wealth denies equal protection to a large subsect of the population who do not enjoy the luxury of disposable income. 

The median bail amount levied at a felony defendant is approximately $10,000, according to a Council of Economic Advisers brief. Meanwhile, a survey by Bankrate finds that 57 percent of Americans do not even have enough money to cover an unexpected $500 expense. Money bail serves as a penalty for being poor.  


Now, it’s imperative that the discussion not only focuses on the problems of money bail but also the solutions that can be implemented to reform the system. Approaches based on something other than a person’s ability to pay the price for freedom are already in practice in certain jurisdictions. 

Currently, four states have banned for-profit bail: Kentucky, Oregon, Wisconsin and Illinois. These states access pretrial release based on risk and the assuredness of greater public safety based on the specifics of the jurisdiction and the defendant. After the assessment is complete, a release recommendation is suggested, and a multitude of options are presented. 

For example, one county in Oregon, Multnomah County, has four release options that can be recommended after risk is properly assessed. If risk is considered excessively low a person is released on their own recognizance with a promise to return to court later. For those with moderate risk, they are referred to a Pretrial Supervision Program that supervises potential defendants on a case-by-case basis. People with high risk who are referred to a Close Street Supervision program. All people, from low to high risk, are monitored through a combination of home and work visits and phone contact. 

Evidence suggests this system works. The state of Kentucky utilizes a similar system to Multnomah County, and the results have been promising. Court appearance rates rose from 89 percent to 90 percent after Kentucky did away with for-profit money bail; rates of re-arrest also decreased by a percentage point. While this is not a great benefit, it illustrates that money bail is not needed to maintain a system of responsibility and surety. In fact, it might have a small detrimental effect on both. 

The ACLU’s Smart Justice campaign is expanding its bail reform and abolition efforts on both a federal and state level. The company’s integrated campaign effort includes litigation procedures, legislative advocacy and communication measures. The nonprofit hopes highlighting these injustices and the multinational corporations that profit at the expense of a person’s freedom will help reverse the ubiquity of money bail.

This country has long steered away from this idyllic view of being the city atop a hill for other societies to emulate. No, instead America has become that city’s duplicitous neighbor. One who forgoes the material well-being of a body politic to prioritize the profit margins of industry. In the words of Donald Glover, “this is America.” And we’d be wise to not let this injustice system catch us slipping: lest we be detained unlawfully. 

You can learn more or donate to the ACLU on their website