Op-ed: Time to end public school inequality

Wednesday, May 15, 2019 - 6:08pm

The effort to eliminate public school segregation in America has stalled.

Our school systems are just as segregated today as they were decades ago. A combination of factors including “white flight,” gerrymandered school districts, the rise of charter and private schools and the decimation of civil rights legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act, have contributed to this. A recent report estimated that predominantly non-white school districts receive $23 billion less than white districts despite serving the same number of students. How can this be? 

It’s simple. The United States, unlike most of the world, has left the education of its citizens up to individual states. The “right” to a free, public education is implied though never addressed directly in the Constitution. Federal dollars compose on average less than 10 percent of a school districts budget, while the rest comes from state and local funding. Usually a school district is first funded from local property taxes. The state usually has a minimum funding level, so if the district is unable to meet that with the money generated from taxes, the state would step in to bridge the gap to the minimum level. Sounds fair right?

Unfortunately, states aren’t always able to contribute what is needed and leave lower-income districts scrambling to provide basic needs. In the wake of the Great Recession, state and local governments slashed funding for K-12 education. This, of course, hit the poorer districts the hardest. Wealthier districts, on the other hand, take in so much more money from their local taxes that they are able to deal with most funding shortages.

The quality of education you grow up with is tied to where you live. By doing this, we are cementing the pathway of upward mobility in this nation with the social engineering of those in power. While poorer districts in general receive less funding than wealthier ones, the contrast is especially stark when looking at the racial disparity. In general, non-white districts receive an average of $2,226 less per student than white districts. High-poverty, white districts still receive $782 more per student than low-poverty, non-white districts and a staggering near $1,500 more than high-poverty non-white districts. “A single fact is clear — financially, it is far better in the United States to have the luck and lot to attend a school district that is predominantly white than one that enrolls a concentration of children of color.” 

Even when a school district is less segregated, issues arise. It is well documented that “aggressive judicial desegregation efforts — and exposure to minorities in general — often lead to white flight from urban school districts.” It seems a clear limitation to integration is white people’s aversion to diversity in their school districts.

While we have yet to solve the aforementioned issue, we have an obligation to all citizens of the United States to reform the way we fund our public schools. Regardless of race, income or geography, all students should have the same amount of investment from the government in their futures. 

On average, a predominantly white district enrolls just over 1,500 students compared to over 10,000 in non-white districts. A potential solution to this issue can be seen in the South, where “school district lines are often drawn along county lines, making districts larger across the board. Researchers found that funding looks more equal in states like Georgia and Alabama.”

According to EdBuild researchers, larger school districts would help balance out funding disparities, instead of arbitrary boundaries that favor keeping white and non-white students separated. Rebecca Sibilia, founder and CEO of EdBuild, said, “This confirms a theory that we've had, which is that the larger the tax base — the larger the actual geography of the school districts — the more you can actually balance out the difference between a wealthy white suburb and a less wealthy rural or urban area.”

Additionally, pooling together the local tax revenue and redistributing it equally would end the unfair system in place today. Of course, this would raise issues: The wealthier districts would likely see their funding drop. This would lead to inevitable backlash from the parents and teachers at wealthy schools. It seems the only plausible way this policy could be implemented would be with a large increase in state funding so that wealthier school districts wouldn’t lose money. Everyone should demand increases in public school funding at the state level. Doing so will ensure that we invest the same amount in all kids, rich and poor.

Another potential solution is to increase the role of the federal government. Either by passing a Constitutional amendment to make public education a right and/or appropriating more funds to use in public education. The federal government could make public education more of a federal priority as opposed to the current system where states hold most of the power. According to the U.S. Department of Education their role is “a kind of ‘emergency response system,’ a means of filling gaps in State and local support for education when critical national needs arise.” 

I believe there is a critical national need for funding in education right now. Putting more money into education won’t fix everything and it’s only the first step to making the educational playing field equal for children of color. To fulfill America’s promise of treating people equally, we must start with education.

Avi Rajendra-Nicolucci is a freshman in the College of Engineering.