America's School Funding is Kleptocracy in ActionRoundup
tags: public schools, education history, School Funding
Esther Cyna is a Visiting Assistant Professor in American History and American Economic History at the Sorbonne-Nouvelle University in Paris, France. Her dissertation, “Shortchanged: Racism, School Finance and Educational Inequality in North Carolina, 1964-1997” (Teachers College, Columbia University, 2021) explored the issue of racial discrimination in public education funding in North Carolina.
As the pandemic forced schools shut, the Public Schools of Robeson County in North Carolina scrambled to save the rural district’s closed and crumbling buildings. At the same time, they faced the major task of providing education to children taking online classes, in a district where 43 percent of households lacked internet connection. At South Robeson Intermediate School, 20 percent of students lived in areas lacking cell service. Every two weeks that spring, parents had to pick up flash drives with lessons and instruction from the school, and return drives with completed homework; yellow school buses were repurposed into WiFi hotspots. For Robeson—as for schools across the country—the pandemic’s toll on education revealed widespread structural deficiencies.
The Public Schools of Robeson County—a consolidated, countywide district—has a long history of underfunding. Previously named Robeson County Schools, the school district in the past served Black and Native American students in rural areas of the county. Separate urban districts concentrated around the county’s main towns catered to a majority white population. The school funding structure, largely based on property taxes, created ever-widening gaps between smaller, whiter districts and the larger, more diverse county school district.1 Even district mergers have not solved the longstanding legacies of Jim Crow in school funding, and inequalities have lasted to this day.2 School buildings themselves reveal decades, if not centuries, of neglect—visible in wall cracks, roof leaks, inadequate equipment, and unsafe schooling conditions.3
School finance inequality
The same trends are visible throughout the nation. Decades of data analysis have shown that money matters for education quality and equality,4 but school districts serving predominantly white students are better resourced, on average, than school districts serving students of color. Predominantly white districts receive an estimated $23 billion more in funding nationally, which corresponds to $2,200 more per student per year. While districts in communities of color often need more resources than their white counterparts, they instead face chronic underfunding.
Moreover, the gap between ultra-wealthy public school districts and the rest has grown over recent decades. The top one percent of school districts (in terms of cost-adjusted wealth) in the United States are disproportionately located in white, suburban, wealthy communities. Between 2000 and 2015, and in spite of the 2008 financial crisis, the relative wealth of these top districts increased by more than 30 percent. This reached an average of approximately $21,000 in cost-adjusted per-pupil revenues, about three times more than the average amount received by districts in the bottom 99 percent.
It’s widely known that basing school funding on property taxes contributes significantly to these large disparities between school districts.5 The funding structure is rooted in a 1973 Supreme Court decision: San Antonio v. Rodriguez closed the doors to federal reform towards school finance equity by upholding the Texas school funding formula, which partially relied on the property tax. The court argued that although the system led to gross inequities, it did not violate the US Constitution, which does not explicitly guarantee a right to education. Attorneys have litigated against the use of property tax to fund public schools at the state level since then, with mixed results.6
Disparities in school finance, however, also appear in less expected ways. They emerge through differences in state aid, teacher salaries, and other policies that on face value appear race neutral, but which intensify the accumulation of inequities over decades. The roots of these gaps are located in a patchwork of state and local discriminatory policies, some stemming from the nineteenth century and others introduced in the last few years. In my research, I look at the creation of unequal tax bases in North Carolina, through the strategic boundary drawing around tax-generating industrial property (such as Research Triangle Park), the maximization of resources for white schools, and the disproportionate investment of state and county funds towards these schools, together forming a kleptocratic political regime. Understanding these mechanisms as forms of dispossession—and recognizing their disparate origins—is crucial to countering their effects.
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