Every year, we see the same depressing statistics about disparities in school funding between white and nonwhite areas. And every year there’s much hand-wringing on both sides of the political aisle about how this has to change. And every year, nothing changes.
So here we are again. A new report from EdBuild, a nonprofit that focuses on education funding, shows that school districts where most of the students are enrolled are students of color receive $23 billion less in educational funding than predominantly white school districts, even though they serve the same number of students.
Why is this a problem? More than half of all American public school students are enrolled in racially concentrated school districts, defined in the EdBuild report as districts comprised of more than 75 percent white or nonwhite students. And on average, poor nonwhite school districts get about 19 percent less per student than wealthy white school districts. It’s worse in some states, though: in Arizona and Oklahoma, the difference in funding is more than 30 percent.
EdBuild’s report also questions the way state and local dollars are distributed. Education funding on the state and local level comes primarily from property taxes, so it makes sense that areas where many wealthy people live in expensive houses will get more money for their public schools than poor districts will. However, state-level funding is supposed to decrease this discrepancy by funneling more money to districts in poorer areas.
But this historical funding structure has been challenged. Typically, income is used as the lens through which school funding decisions are made, but those decisions have been made without factoring in the racial demographics in those poorer neighborhoods.
When EdBuild took income levels out of the equation, they found that districts serving large numbers of students of color get an average of about 16 percent less funding per student than largely white school districts. Even poor white school districts only got 11 percent less per-student funding.
“We tested whether or not these funding formulas, argued on the basis of class and funded on the basis of class, have fixed a disparate problem in the country,” said EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia. “What we found is, on the whole, we still have a major problem in how we’re treating nonwhite neighborhoods.”
The EdBuild report’s methods are controversial because unlike some research on the subject, EdBuild didn’t take into account factors such as “outlier” schools—those in remote districts, which tend to get larger funding subsidies, and which tend to be more white. Most policymakers say it would be more accurate to adjust findings for data that could otherwise skew results in order to provide a more nuanced look at funding issues.
Regardless, EdBuild’s report does reflect a well-known discrepancy in the difference in funding between white students and students of color.
“So long as we link opportunity to gerrymandered borders and school funding to local wealth, we will never have a fair education system,” Sibilia said. “The wrenching reality is that, from any angle, America is investing billions more in the future of white children.”
A 2018 report from The Education Trust also compared funding inequities between income levels and races, found only four states that showed significant disparities between funding of poor and wealthy school district. But when the trust compared funding levels for predominantly white districts and those comprised mostly of students of color, the number of states jumps to 14.
“What we should be recognizing is that school systems have been set up—in many cases very intentionally—to repress students, families, and communities of color, said Ary Amerikaner, vice president for P-12 policy, practice, and research at The Education Trust. “And if today they’re not intentionally doing that, they are certainly continuing to do that by under-resourcing them.”