Friday, January 15, 2016

Educational Ghettos - The Need for Funding Reforms in U.S. Public Schools

Are U.S. public schools going back to the future?
Last night I drove into Princeton to watch The Big Short again at my friend Geoff's house.

Watching a dark comedy about the complexities of the sub-prime mortgage crisis with a trained economist (with a large flat screen TV) who loves film is particularly helpful because you can periodically pause the DVD and ask questions about topics like CDO's, derivatives or tranches while drinking wine.

So I missed the sixth televised Republican presidential debate.

From the various recaps and summaries I read online, the debate was filled with a lot of bluster and big talk; and I doubt I'm the only one who found Senator Ted Cruz's derisive comment about "New York values" to be coded anti-Semitism.

Guess Ted wasn't so concerned about "New York values" when his wife Heidi, a managing director at Goldman Sachs, helped arrange a loan of several hundred thousand dollars from the New York uber-bank which he used for his Senatorial campaign and failed to report to the Federal Election Commission in violation of campaign finance regulations. Values indeed.

Not surprisingly there was very little substantive debate amongst the GOP frontrunners about specific policy issues that impact the lives of Americans; like the state of public school education in this country.

It was just about this time last year that I blogged about wide disparities in the severity and frequency of  discipline meted out to American students in K - 12 schools based on race; like 13 year-old Garland, Texas student Alexis Kyle who was suspended for using her friend's asthma inhaler during an asthma attack. Really.

Since posting that blog, the problems related to disparities in education have only gotten worse.

Earlier this week, a reader named Katherine sent me an email with a link to a fascinating and informative article on the deeply troubling impact of public school funding on racial segregation entitled, "Separate and Unequal: School Funding in 'Post-Racial' America" which she helped to co-create.

If you want a snapshot of the state of racial segregation in American public schools in the 21st century, I highly recommend you click the link above and take some time to read this well-researched article.

As the article notes, it was the Supreme Court decision in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez in 1973 which ruled that public school funding which is "based primarily on local property tax revenues does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause." that opened the door to the legal segregation of public schools in America.

It's of interest to note that in that same decision in Rodriguez, the Supreme Court of the United State also held that education is not a fundamental right. Think about that.

Katherine's article offers some startling statistics to demonstrate how this decision had the effect of opening the door to the resegregation of American public schools based on race because of the disparities in the ability of different school districts to spend on the public schools within their borders.

This has the effect of creating what the South Carolina Supreme Court in 2014 termed "educational ghettos" in reference to the poor, majority-minority public school districts in its own state.

You've really got see some of the statistics in that article - a sampling:

  • "In 2005, 88 percent of supermajority-minority schools were associated with levels of poverty characteristic of educational ghettos, which was not the case for White-dominated schools."     
  • "Nationwide, over two-thirds of students of color attend schools where the proportion of low-income students is more than one in every two.
  • One in every two public school students in the South has come from a low-income household for nearly a decade.
We all know low-income students in America tend to be clustered in economically-disadvantaged districts.

No one is going to suggest people of means don't have a right to live where they want or choose to send their children to good schools, but one would also think the federal government would have a responsibility to take a bigger role in using funds to balance out the automatic advantage wealthier districts have by virtue of the larger tax base they enjoy.

2014-15 Sources & funding for K-12 education in California
But today, as Katherine's article notes, federal funding makes up only 11% of public school budgets; the rest is split between the state (45%) and local property taxes (44%).

Is it surprising that today public schools are more segregated by race than they were in 1968?

If the federal government took responsibility for more adequate funding of public schools, it could help to narrow the gaps created by a district's ability to spend on schools based on the wealth within a given town or district.

Sadly, for many students in this country, disparities in school funding aren't the only factor impacting the segregation of public schools along color lines.

As Sonali Kohli reported in an article in The Atlantic back in November, 2014, over sixty years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case ruled that "separate but equal" violated the Constitution, "the controversial practice known as "tracking" - designating students for separate educational paths based on their academic performance as teens or younger." is having the net effect of segregating classes by race.

This is a huge issue across the nation, including in New York City.

Although The Big Apple has a global reputation as an incredibly diverse and progressive urban community, the public schools there are the most segregated in America; and have been for years. 

Check out Jonathan Kozol's Gotham Gazette article from January, 2006 entitled, "Segregated Schools: Shame of the City".

The March on Washington, August 28, 1963
When you pause to consider the decades of sacrifice and effort undertaken by countless teachers, administrators, parents, activists, volunteers, clergy, politicians and concerned citizens to break down the barriers of segregation in America, the level of racial segregation in America's public schools is the collective shame of our nation.

I've heard leading Democratic presidential candidates talk about lowering costs for college tuition, lowering interest rates on school loans, or making two years of community college free.

I've heard leading Republican candidates talk about allowing larger shares of local, state and federal funds to be used on charter schools.

But are any of them really talking about the fact that America's public schools are more segregated along racial lines than they have been in almost fifty years?

What use are reforms in access to higher education for those unprepared to access it?

This nation spent over $1.7 trillion on the war in Iraq; and those costs will escalate in the coming decades as veterans receive benefits and medical care associated with the war. 

In fiscal 2015 the federal government will spend $3.7 trillion, of that 4.2% ($154 billion) will go to spending on education. 4.2%.

Perhaps the truth of segregation in American public schools is in the pie; and in the priorities of the politicians who decide who gets which slice of it.

In the meantime, as the article Katherine shared demonstrates, in terms of public school education in America, in some ways we seem to be going back to the future.

Some of us that is.

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