"Savage Inequalities" Revisited

Richer, whiter school districts are still getting more public funds, while the federal government looks the other way.

by Bob Feldman

Dollars and Sense magazine, January/February 2003


In the late 1980s, I taught health and social studies in a New York City public school. My students came largely from African-American and Caribbean families, and the school was located in a high-poverty district. Because funding was so tight, we had no textbooks for a required eighth-grade health class, no classroom maps for seventh- and eighth-grade history classes, and no photocopying machines that teachers or students could use for free. There was also no school newspaper or yearbook, and the school band had fewer than twenty instruments.

The conditions in this school illustrated a crisis of funding inequality in the U.S. public school system. In his 1991 book Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol, a long-time critic of unequal education, famously exposed this crisis. He noted, for instance, that schools in the rich suburbs of New York City spent more than $ 11,000 per pupil in 1987, while those in the city itself spent only $5,500. The story was the same throughout the country: per-capita spending for poor students and students of color in urban areas was a fraction of that in richer, whiter suburbs just miles away.

Over ten years after Savage Inequalities was first published, how close has the U.S. public school system come to providing equitable funding for all students-funding that is at least equal between districts, or better yet, higher in poorer areas that have greater needs?

Not very far, according to a new report by the Washington, D.C.-based Education Trust. Entitled "The Funding Gap: Low-Income and Minority Students Receive Fewer Dollars," the report examines state and local expenditures in 15,000 school districts during 1999-2000. Since federal funds account for only 7% of public school resources, this study of state and local spending zeroes in on the source of funding inequality.

According to the Education Trust study, the poorest 25% of school districts in each state receive an average of $966 less in state and local funds per pupil than the richest 25%. This gap has narrowed by $173 since 1997, but it does not reflect uniform progress: in nine of 47 states examined, the gap widened by at least $100. In states like New York and Illinois, spending differences remain staggering, totaling $2,152 and $2,060 per student, respectively. These figures, like all those in the study, are adjusted to account for the greater expense of educating students in poor districts and areas with a high cost of living.

Funding inequality puts students of color at a special disadvantage. In two-thirds of states in the Education Trust study, the quarter of school districts with the highest percentage of students of color received at least $100 less in state and local funding than the quarter of districts with the lowest percentage of students of color. New York topped the charts for racial inequality: the quarter of districts with the highest percentage of students of color received $2,034 less in state and local funds per student than the quarter of districts enrolling the smallest percentage.

Between 1997 and 2000, 30 of the 47 states studied did move toward providing equal or greater funding for students in poorer districts-and some states made significant progress. Why did this happen? According to Michael Rebell, executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, lawsuits have produced some changes. New Jersey, for instance, began channeling funds to its poorest districts after a court challenge; as of 2000, the state government provided roughly three times as much per capita funding to the poorest quarter of districts as it did to the richest quarter.

While the state government's targeted funds are counterbalanced by wildly unequal local resources, students in the poorest quarter of districts now receive a net of $324 more per capita than those in the richest quarter. States like Oregon have achieved similar results not by targeting poorer districts, but by assuming a greater share of responsibility for school funding state-wide. Strategies like New Jersey's and Oregon's help explain the narrowing funding gap, and could be models for other states.

Rebell notes, however, that state-level remedies are fundamentally limited: among states, they are "complex and uneven," and nationally, they leave millions of students unaffected. A more powerful solution might be for the federal government to fund the public school system directly, as governments do in Canada, Japan, and most social democratic countries of Western Europe. Today, the U.S. government does channel money to poor districts through Title I, the largest single federal investment in education. But Title I funds are not intended to equalize funding within states: the federal government leaves that responsibility to state and local authorities, who plainly do not comply.

The needs of students would be justly served by federally guaranteed funding, but current state and federal policies guarantee something very different. As Jonathan Kozol explained a decade ago, "The present system guarantees that those who can buy a $1 million home in an affluent suburb will also be able to provide their children with superior schools." The U.S. public school system is still rigged in favor of students from richer, whiter districts; and as Rebell remarks, the United States remains "the only major developed country in the world that exhibits this shameful pattern of educational inequity."


Bob Feldman is a Dollars & Sense intern.

Education watch

Index of Website

Home Page