Race and Disparity in Educational Funding

Jul 6, 2011 by

Communities that are dominated by specific racial minorities tend to be areas where there is a lower tax base. Generally, in all states except Hawaii, schools are supported in large part by money that comes from the local tax base. In poorer communities, a lower tax base results in less funding for the schools in those areas.

Minority groups tend to live in poverty in proportions that exceed their representation in society. Communities that are dominated by specific racial minorities tend to be areas where there is a lower tax base. Generally, in all states except Hawaii, schools are supported in large part by money that comes from the local tax base. In poorer communities, a lower tax base results in less funding for the schools in

Running schools costs money. Paying teachers and the school staff; purchasing textbooks, equipment, and computers; and the upkeep of buildings and school grounds, all need to be paid for. Since wealthier communities generally have more funds available to them, it makes sense that their schools have an advantage when it comes to paying for all that is required to run a school. The question then becomes, where does that leave schools attended by racial minorities who live in poverty?

While the federal government contributes relatively little to the schools, state-generated revenues are being directed toward these schools more and more. In some states, the state government contributes as little as 20 percent to schools in local communities, and in others, the state contributes as much as 80 percent. This can still leave a wide gap between funding for schools in the poorer communities, versus funding for schools in wealthier communities.

Is this method of financing schools discriminatory? Many think so, including the California Supreme Court, who ruled in 1961 that a system of financing a school that is based on the wealth of the community is discriminatory and violates the state constitution. It might be fair to say that it violates the United States Constitution by denying children equal access to education, but not everyone feels this way. In fact, the 1973 Texas case of the San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez, the ruling was 5–4 that disproportionate school financing based on discrepancies in property taxes could not be challenged. Justice Lewis Powell was instrumental in this ruling with the following arguments: as long as everyone is getting a basic education, the differences are not unfair; whether or not the amount of money affects the quality of education is not clear; and education is not a right guaranteed under the United States Constitution.

Those who have disagreed with Powell suggested that despite the fact that the U.S. Constitution does not protect the educational rights of children, the Constitution in most states does. Educational rights are not an issue that is likely to get voters’ attention however, due to the fact that a majority of voters are Americans of European descent and are generally wealthy individuals whose children have access to the best schools. As a result, there are often differences in the quality of schools, even within the same metropolitan area, and between cities and suburbs.

It has been pointed out that equalization of per-student spending is only a part of a total solution for ensuring quality schools for all children, particularly in situations where there is an overall decrease in the amount of money available for the schools. This may be the case, but in many states there is obvious bias. Consider the state of Connecticut, which is near the top of the list when it comes to the amount of money spent on students. In the 1990s, the average amount spent across the state on books and other learning materials was $147.68 per student. In Hartford however where the student population was more than 92 percent minority, the funding for instructional materials was $77 per student. This was a mere 52 percent of the state average. A clear message was sent that these students were not as important as other students in the state.

It is not uncommon for parents and educators to seek political allies on school boards and legislative support to ensure that better funding for schools is found and delivered. They often look for adequacy in school funding rather than equal school funding. Basically, they want each school to receive the minimum level of funding that is adequate to fully meet the needs of students. This adequate amount was defined in New Jersey as the average amount spent on education by the 130 wealthiest districts in the state.

Once school funding in New Jersey was adjusted based adequacy, and extra funds were added to schools in poorer areas, the results were perceptible. More young children had access to high quality pre-kindergarten and kindergarten programs, and the gap between math and language arts test scores of urban and suburban students decreased by 50 percent. New Jersey also has the highest high school graduation rate in the country and this distinction includes students from minority groups. The difference this funding has made is certainly measurable.

While more work needs to be done in the area of school funding, the New Jersey example provides a model for states interested in using funds directed toward education to ensure quality educational experiences for all students. Possibly the next area of focus is not the amount of money spent, but how that money is being spent with a focus on ensuring it is applied in ways that will create programs that are beneficial to all students.

Dr. Lynch is an Assistant Professor of Education at Widener University. Dr. Lynch’s scholarship is intended to make a redoubtable, theoretically and empirically based argument that genuine school reform and the closing of the well-chronicled achievement gap are possible. Dr. Lynch is the author of three forthcoming books; Its Time for Change: School Reform for the Next Decade (Rowman & Littlefield 2012), A Guide to Effective School Leadership Theories (Routledge 2012), and The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Teaching and Learning (Pearson 2013). He is also the editor of the forthcoming 2-volume set, Before Obama: A Reappraisal of Black Reconstruction Era Politicians (Praeger 2012). He can be contacted at mlynch@mail.widener.edu.

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