The walls at the high school Leanne Nunes attended in the Bronx were painted a color she likes to call “penitentiary beige.”
The cafeteria, located in the basement, had no windows. About half of her classrooms didn’t have windows, either. “It felt kind of jail-like,” Nunes, now a first-year student at Howard University, told Vox. “It felt like the building itself was trying to keep you in.”
And the lack of resources went beyond the physical space. Laptops for students were often old or broken. Students struggled to get access to the classes they wanted. For example, the school could only afford to offer art or music in a single year, not both. “You’d have to pick,” Nunes said, “and by ‘you’d have to pick,’ I mean the school made the decision for you.”
Looking back, she said, “there were a lot of opportunities where I think young people could have been learning or engaging with content better, but they didn’t really have the chance to.”
What Nunes experienced isn’t out of the ordinary — it’s the norm around the country. While affluent school districts can afford to offer students everything from the latest technology to a range of advanced classes, schools in lower-income areas often struggle to provide the basic necessities. That gap has become a chasm during the Covid-19 pandemic, when something like a cafeteria with no windows becomes a very real health hazard.
And because of the legacy of housing discrimination, especially against Black Americans, the poorest schools in the country disproportionately serve Black students and other students of color. “Since genocide and enslavement built the country, there have been intentional systems put in place to bar, particularly, Black children from quality public schools,” Khalilah Harris, acting vice president for K-12 education policy at the Center for American Progress, told Vox.
Nationwide, majority-nonwhite districts get $23 billion less in funding every year than majority-white districts, despite having the same number of students. That gap translates to a lower-quality education for many Black students and other students of color — which, in turn, perpetuates and widens America’s racial inequities. “All of the implications of not being able to get an education — these are linked to people’s ability to support themselves, to support their families, to have healthy communities,” Verna Williams, the dean of the University of Cincinnati College of Law, who has studied reparations for educational segregation, told Vox.
People who were denied the opportunity for a fair education can’t get those years back. But there’s a lot the US can do to make sure that Black children now, and in the future, can access the same high-quality schooling that’s available to some white kids.
The first step, many say, is federal grants to close the funding gaps between schools that serve majority-Black communities and schools that serve white ones. The next is cutting the link between school funding and property taxes so that schools in Black communities can receive more funding in the future. And beyond money, some say the country needs a culture shift in how it supports teachers and students, and in the whole narrative around schools and students nationwide.
“The idea that there’s good schools and bad schools and that is determined by the students within them is harmful and not true,” Nunes, now the executive college director at the educational equity organization IntegrateNYC, told Vox. “There are no good schools and bad schools. There’s schools that currently have and historically have had what they need to succeed, and schools that don’t.”
Underfunded schools mean a worse education for Black students — and impact the rest of their lives
The history of educational inequity in America today is inextricably linked to housing discrimination. From the 1930s to the late 1960s, the federal government refused to insure mortgages in neighborhoods where Black people lived, a form of discrimination known as redlining. That meant people couldn’t get bank loans for homes in such neighborhoods, locking many Black families out of homeownership and forcing others to turn to predatory lenders. Those who did manage to buy homes in redlined neighborhoods saw property values fall as they were unable to get loans for repairs or improvements.
Over time, redlining led to a situation where “if a Black person would move in, white people would move out” of a neighborhood, Elise Boddie, a law professor and the Newark director of Rutgers University’s Institute for the Study of Global Racial Justice, told Vox. Then “resources would also flow out of a neighborhood” and “neighborhoods would decline, leading to further disinvestment.”
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited redlining, but its effects persist today: Homes in neighborhoods that are at least 50 percent Black are valued at about half the price of homes in neighborhoods with no Black residents, according to a 2018 Brookings Institution study.
That disparity affects schools because their funding is largely tied to local property tax revenues. That means schools in lower-income neighborhoods simply have less money to work with. In 2016, for example, the Chicago Ridge School District in Illinois had $9,794 to spend on each pupil, NPR reported. Rondout District 72, less than an hour away in the Chicago suburbs, had $28,639.
Less money means, quite simply, less of everything for Black students and the schools they attend. That includes fewer experienced teachers: Schools with high percentages of Black and Latinx students have nearly twice as many first-year teachers as schools with low Black and Latinx enrollment, according to the New York Times.
It includes professionals like school nurses and counselors — in one recent survey, Black students were less likely than white students to say they could reach out to a teacher or counselor at school if they needed help with a mental health issue. And it includes electives, advanced classes, and other features of a well-rounded curriculum; for example, just a third of schools with high Black and Latinx enrollment offer calculus, according to the Times. “So many resources that we see in wealthy schools are a product of the fact that those schools are in wealthy districts,” Boddie told Vox.
These disparities, in turn, lead to disparities in things like graduation rates and college attendance. In 2017-2018, for example, the average graduation rate for white public high school students nationwide was 89 percent. For Black students, it was 79 percent. In some states, the gap was even wider — 21 percentage points in Minnesota, for example, and 24 percentage points in Wisconsin. White students graduated at higher rates than their Black peers in every single state.
Meanwhile, just 34 percent of Black Americans ages 18 to 24 were enrolled in college as of 2016, compared with 42 percent of white Americans in the same age range. White students were also more likely than Black students to graduate within six years, and to attend top-tier colleges — where graduates earn over $2 million more in their lifetimes than graduates of less selective institutions, according to the Hechinger Report.
All this means the gap in school funding ends up widening the income and wealth gaps between Black and white Americans, which leaves Black people with less money for housing — and reinforces the disparities that led to school funding gaps in the first place.
And the Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these problems. Underfunded schools don’t just lack highly trained teachers and staff; in some cases, they’re literally falling apart.
“Here in Baltimore, where I live, there are schools where the resolution was just to solder windows shut that were broken because there were not funds to replace all of the windows,” Harris said. Other schools have substandard HVAC or electrical systems, or a lack of running water to wash hands — all of which make them dangerous to reopen during the pandemic. Overall, more than half of schools need some form of repair, and about half of school districts in America needed to replace systems like air conditioning or plumbing, according to a 2020 report by the Government Accountability Office — and a majority of those districts served communities of color.
If policymakers try to reopen schools in the pandemic without addressing the safety issues that disproportionately impact Black students and other students of color, “you are sending a message about which children are a priority,” Harris said.
To close the gap, underfunded schools need money
It’s past time for policymakers at the highest levels of government to send another message, advocates say: that all children deserve a safe, high-quality education. One way to send that message loud and clear is with money.
The federal government can help equalize school funding by giving grants to underfunded schools, Harris said. One proposal developed by the Center for American Progress, called Public Education Opportunity Grants, would have the government provide about $63 billion per year — enough for about $12,000 per student — to the 25 percent of districts with the highest poverty rate in each state. States with fewer resources overall, as measured by gross state product, would get extra money to help equalize funding across states.
School districts would be required to use the money specifically to improve access to education for historically underserved groups, including Black or Indigenous students and other students of color, students with disabilities, and students from low-income families. And they’d be required to set improvement targets for student outcomes and resource equity, and report on their progress toward meeting them. For students attending the most impoverished schools, it’s crucial to “account for all the ways their communities have been impacted so that those schools aren’t suffering because of the tax base,” Harris said.
Above and beyond that money, schools need to be part of the conversation around rebuilding American infrastructure, Harris said. CAP has proposed an additional federal investment to repair the many schools in America that are in substandard condition. A lot of this money would go to fixing the buildings themselves — just repairing systems like heat, plumbing, and ventilation in Detroit public schools would cost $500 million, according to a 2019 CAP analysis. In Baltimore, it could cost up to $2.8 billion.
But the federal government should go beyond these basics to ensure that schools have broadband internet and working computers in every classroom, and that their furniture and spaces support learning for students with disabilities. All told, fixing school buildings alone would cost as much as $200 billion, according to CAP, and investing in technology and other needs could bring the price tag higher.
These are large amounts of money, sure to face opposition from Republicans (and some Democrats) in Congress. But research shows that increased funding has a real impact on student outcomes. One 2015 study, for example, found that a 10 percent increase in spending per student for all 12 years of public school led to 7.25 percent higher wages in adulthood, and that the effects were greater for low-income students. Another, published in 2019, found that an increase in spending was associated with an increase in graduation rates.
And the pandemic has directed more attention than ever to the problems with schools, with teachers and some parents pointing out that the same repairs that have been necessary now are even more urgent in a time of Covid-19. Their argument, according to Harris: “You want our kids to go back? We want them to go back, but did you forget this school building we were protesting just a year or two ago when there was no heat?”
The arrival of a new administration and a Democratic majority in Congress, however small, may create an opportunity for a big investment. Though the Biden administration has not specifically taken up the Public Education Opportunity Grants proposal, the president has proposed tripling funding for schools under the existing Title I program, which provides federal money to schools with a high percentage of low-income students. (The grants proposed by CAP would be more carefully targeted to improve equity than Title I dollars, which can be spent in a variety of ways, Harris said.) Education Secretary-designate Miguel Cardona, a former fourth-grade teacher, has said that “investing in public education is one of the most critical things he will be focusing on,” Harris said.
Overall, Harris and others hope that the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress “will understand the urgency to move faster and harder on progressive policy as opposed to policies that come from compromise, when the compromise should not be had on the backs of children.”
Federal funding is only the first step
Action at the federal level can put pressure on states, too. CAP’s Public Education Opportunity Grants proposal would also include money for “states that are trying to pilot moving away from property taxes to fund schools,” Harris said, to incentivize more equitable models and help state governments put them into practice.
Moreover, if Congress took up the federal school grants program, it could help bring greater attention to the problem. “It brings the conversation out to a national stage,” B.J. Walker, who works with the We the People National Alliance on a campaign to advance quality education as a constitutional right, told Vox. “And something on a national stage is likely to get seen by more than if you go fight 50 battles on the ground.”
While grants from the federal government can begin to remedy some of the inequities of school funding in America, to finish the job, states and local districts will need to change the way they allocate funds — moving away from formulas based on property tax that perpetuate the harms of housing segregation.
This is, in many ways, a harder problem than distributing federal funding, because it requires change from countless state and local governments all around the country. In every state, “you’re going to have a different set of dynamics, you’re going to have a different set of players,” Walker said. Some of those players are wealthy parents who are sure to push back against efforts to alter a system that benefits them — “people who buy big, expensive houses and that’s one of the ways they invest in their schools,” as Walker puts it.
But advocates are beginning to tackle the problem. In some cases, they’re going through the courts to argue that underfunded schools violate children’s civil rights. In 2016, for example, a group of Detroit public school students sued the state of Michigan arguing that they had been deprived of their rights as citizens under the 14th Amendment by their underresourced schools.
Public schools in Detroit overwhelmingly serve Black and Latinx students in low-income communities, and the lawsuit described devastating effects of a lack of funding on the quality of education, from physics classes using biology textbooks to buildings infested with rodents, the New York Times reported. And in 2020, a court found in favor of the students, with Judge Eric L. Clay writing that when “a group of children is relegated to a school system that does not provide even a plausible chance to attain literacy, we hold that the Constitution provides them with a remedy.”
The case didn’t break the link between property tax and school funding in Michigan. But it did lead to a settlement between the students and the state, in which Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to send $2.7 million to support literacy efforts in Detroit schools, and propose legislation before the end of her term that would provide an additional $94.4 million. Similar cases, such as one in California, have led to settlements as well.
“I think we’re going to see a lot more of those cases,” Harris said, in which students and their advocates argue “that property taxes are causing their schools to be woefully underfunded and not providing an adequate education.” In addition to the Detroit and California cases, suits challenging inequities in school funding have been filed in Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Florida in recent years, and in December, a judge in New Mexico ruled that the state would have to come up with a new system for allocating money that “does not create substantial disparities in capital funding among the school districts in New Mexico.”
Lawsuits aren’t the only way to change school funding formulas. In many cases, state legislatures could decide to move away from property taxes and allocate school funding differently. That would no doubt prompt pushback from more affluent parents, but the combination of a pandemic and a nationwide reckoning around racism could convince more state lawmakers that it’s a fight worth having. Legislation to change school funding formulas has been floated in recent years in Maryland and Ohio. In 2019, Massachusetts passed a bill to add $1.5 billion per year in school funding, with a focus on districts serving low-income students.
One way to push state legislators toward these initiatives is through federal money, which could show what’s possible when schools actually have the resources they need. “A lot of people think, ‘The reason why that school’s not a good school is because those are bad kids and bad neighborhoods and bad communities,’” Walker said. Federal investment would show “that these schools can do something different than you perceive them or expect them to do.”
Money is important, but cultural change has to happen, too
As crucial as it is to get underfunded schools the resources they need, many say money is just the beginning of addressing inequality and systemic racism in American education. As Walker puts it, “it isn’t just the money, but what the money is spent on.”
For example, even when Black students go to well-funded, suburban schools like those in Evanston, Illinois, they still often get fewer resources than their white peers. To make sure students get equal opportunities within schools, districts need to look at which students have access to the most experienced teachers, and offer teachers support and training to help them teach students at all levels, Walker said — not just those who come into the classroom with a good foundation already.
Still, some say that even with more funding, any strides toward equality won’t be permanent without an intentional push to integrate schools. “Funding depends on a politician,” Boddie, of the Institute for the Study of Global Racial Justice, said. “The political system is greased by the people who have power and resources, and so often that is not Black children.”
That means money apportioned one year could be gone the next unless districts do the work to make sure that Black students and other students of color go to the same schools as white students. School districts in Berkeley, California, and Montclair, New Jersey, have made efforts to integrate schools, using busing, magnet programs, and other ways of bringing students from different neighborhoods together at school. While the results aren’t perfect, research shows that integrating schools can increase graduation rates for Black students and decrease their risk of poverty in adulthood.
How students are treated within schools is crucial as well. IntegrateNYC, where Nunes is executive college director, has proposed a five-part plan for truly integrating New York City schools. One of those parts is building relationships, “looking at the different interactions that are happening across identity groups, and how the curriculum is either helping or harming those interactions,” Nunes said. “Even if a school is demographically diverse, you can still have a curriculum that is helping to perpetuate individual segregation.”
Teachers need to be trained in culturally responsive pedagogy, which essentially means the ability “to teach the kids who are in front of them and prepare them to live in a global society,” Harris said. That can mean anything from teaching students in a language they understand to simply making sure they actually learn the realities of history. “You shouldn’t have some white kids who hear the Civil War was about states’ rights” without learning that the “right” at issue was the power to enslave people, Harris explained.
Another part is using a restorative justice approach to stop the school-to-prison pipeline wherein Black students and other students of color are disproportionately disciplined and arrested within schools, ultimately contributing to mass incarceration. To combat this, IntegrateNYC calls for the removal of police officers from schools, as well as greater investment in guidance counselors and social workers, and training in restorative justice for teachers and staff.
Educational equity will require not just money but a deep examination of how Americans view young people, and how the country measures value and success, Nunes said. “Asking these questions of ourselves and each other and having these conversations is something that needs to happen,” she said.
“We can’t couch racial justice issues only in criminal justice and housing, or helping people to be entrepreneurs,” Harris said. “Education undergirds every part of our lives in this country.”