Landscape of Inequality: How America Funds Public Schools

American Schools

© Michael Quirk

August 30, 2016 17:25 EDT

Amid an election full of outlandish statements, Twitter spats and ad hominem accusations, many important problems facing America have failed to grace headlines. In the third of a five-part series exploring issues ignored during the 2016 presidential election season, Ryan J. Suto addresses the inequalities in America’s public education funding. Click here for part 1 and here for part 2.

During the opening battles of the 2016 presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders advocated for his plan to make higher education free at public colleges and universities nationwide, a plan that likely contributed to the senator’s wild popularity among a generation shackled with student debt.

A similar position was adopted a year later by eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in hopes of securing support among the same demographic. Republican nominee Donald Trump’s position on the topic largely opposes the federal government’s role in broadly subsidizing higher education.

While the discourse around higher education during this election has largely been substantive and important, it has all but ignored the 13 years before students apply to college. In an era of national discussions of social justice issues such as income inequality and racial disparities, little has been made of the most regressive institution in American society: the reliance on local property taxes to finance public schools.

The problem

Public education in the United States has traditionally and legally been driven by the most local political units, with most states drawing school funding from the local district’s property taxes. While this may have served students well in the past, school funding inequalities have exacerbated along with their sources of capital: Income inequality has been increasing since the 1970s and economic and racial self-segregation is on the rise, resulting in growing revenue disparity among public schools within each state.

According to the Government Accountability Office, between 2000 and 2013 the percentage of high-poverty public schools that consisted of mostly black or Hispanic students grew from 9% to 16%. These disparities are sometimes exacerbated by uneven state funding, as well. For example, the Education Law Center found that in Illinois and North Dakota, high poverty districts receive from the state only about 80% of the per pupil funding of more affluent districts.

While throwing money at a problem never guarantees results when viewed in the abstract, The Atlantic recently reported that a 20% increase in per-pupil spending can lead to “an additional year of completed education, 25 percent higher earnings, and a 20-percentage point reduction in the incidence of poverty in adulthood, according to a paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research.”

Beyond the quantitative evidence, such variance in school resources amounts to newer technology in classrooms, retention of more experienced educators, more options for electives, greater access to college and career readiness programs, and increased choice for extracurricular activities. When applied unequally, these differences give students either advantages or hurdles when competing for scholarships, university admissions, internships and employment.

Attempts at reform

Several states have recently attempted to either reform or replace the property tax-based funding model for public schools. In 2008, New Jersey enacted the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), which disbursed state education funds based on a formula weighted to account for additional services needed for “poor (at-risk) students, limited-English proficient (LEP) students, and students with disabilities.”

Under Governor Chris Christie, the program has been mired by litigation at the State Supreme Court level, facing insufficient funding for proper implementation. Litigation regarding public school funding is so common that, since 1971, 45 states have faced school finance lawsuits.

Next of note, in 2013, California began to use the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), which included similar consideration as New Jersey’s reform attempt but included increased spending autonomy at the local level. And this year, both Illinois and Pennsylvania are attempting to adopt more progressive funding models, yet both have been criticized for presenting the potential for actually being regressive in practice.

Such reform attempts are difficult to sustain, as they involve shifting resources from high-income—and, therefore, politically influential—taxpayer’s children to children in lower-income communities.

These attempts aside, many states face lower funding for schools due to property tax cuts, lowered state contribution due to strapped budgets, or policy stagnation due to old-fashioned partisan gridlock. In total, state and local funds combine to provide less per pupil funding to children in poverty in 23 states, with the gap only growing between the highest and lowest funded districts.

Where to go

Many education reform advocates point to a major roadblock in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973), a US Supreme Court case which held that public school funding disparities based on local property taxes do not violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution.

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In a 5-4 decision the majority argued, inter alia, that since education is not implicitly or explicitly mentioned as a power or duty of the federal government under the Constitution, it cannot be found as a fundamental right. This holding has largely kept the federal government out of the business of addressing education inequality; at present, only 8% of the average public school’s budget comes from the federal government, and is often earmarked for particular programs.

However, much like in the area of racial discrimination, states have been ineffective at providing educational equality, where the K-12 level is just the beginning.

At present, merely 5% of Americans aged 25 to 34 whose parents did not finish high school have a college degree. And even when the rare poor student goes to college, high school dropouts from affluent families are just as likely to be in the top income quintile as college graduates from poor families, demonstrating the life-long benefits of affluence, regardless of individual merit. While principles of federalism—the division of responsibilities between state governments and the federal government—should be respected, the past 30 years have shown that “the vagaries of the political process …  has proved singularly unsuited to the task of providing a remedy for this discrimination,” as Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote in his Rodriguez dissent.

While no clear silver bullet for ameliorating systemic and generation inequalities in education (and, therefore, in opportunities and income) has been found, our future depends on meaningful discussions on how to arrive at a better system. As long as such wide funding disparities exist both between and within states, the experiences, opportunities and futures of America’s children will continue to be shaped largely by the zip code in which they live.

Solutions have not been found at the ballot box over the past 40 years as we should not tolerate 40 more. As such, just as the 2016 presidential election has sparked a discussion around overturning Citizens United v. FEC (2010), the Rodriguez decision, too, is ripe for reexamination once the court returns to a full complement of justices. “In the meantime,” Justice Marshall wrote, “countless children unjustifiably receive inferior educations that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Michael Quirk

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