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,
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.