It should come as no surprise to anyone in education policy that 65 years after Brown vs. Board of Education desegregated public schools in America, schools are still very much separate but unequal.
A new report from the nonprofit EdBuild puts a stark number on that inequality: $23 billion.
That’s how much more primarily white school districts get than primarily nonwhite districts, despite equal enrollment.
EdBuild argues that because schools are mostly funded locally, “the school funding system has inherited all of the historical ills of where we have forced and incentivized people to live,” Rebecca Sibilia, founder and CEO of EdBuild, told NPR. In short, poor, historically segregated areas have fewer resources to contribute to schools, and well-off schools can rely on district geographies—what EdBuild calls “invisible lines’—to keep school districts small and relatively well funded.
According to EdBuild, predominantly white districts — which the organization defines as districts where at least 75 percent of students are white — are also often smaller, on average 1,500 students. Nonwhite districts, where at least 75 percent of students are not white, serve an average of 10,000 students — three times the national average.
That often means that districts serving students of color “rely more on the decisions that are being made at the state level, but there are fewer voices representing them. And that’s where you really start to see the shift in power,” Sibilia told NPR.
It’s not just a class issue. School districts that are poor and white get about $150 less per student than the national average. School districts that are poor and nonwhite receive $1,600 less. And even low-poverty nonwhite districts average less per student than poor white districts.
In the South, school districts are often drawn along county lines, NPR said. That results in larger school districts. And in fact, funding looks more equal in southern states.
“This confirms a theory that we’ve had, which is that the larger the tax base — the larger the actual geography of the school districts — the more you can actually balance out the difference between a wealthy white suburb and a less wealthy rural or urban area,” Sibilia says.
As Pacific Standard noted, the report also found that lawsuits challenging state funding formulas have made the barest dent in the problem. In New Jersey, a series of lawsuits that have been going on for 30 years forced the state to award more funding to poor urban school districts. There’s still a $7,300-per-student funding gap between poor white and poor non-white districts.
Sibilia founded EdBuild after working with former D.C. schools superintendent Michelle Rhee at StudentsFirst, a nonprofit and lobbying group that promoted charter schools and test-based teacher accountability. In 2015, however, Sibilia told The 74, a nonprofit news outlet covering education, that focusing on those policies over funding was a mistake. “Our friends on the reform side have done a disservice to this issue,” she told the outlet.
Some prominent academics have said that school funding isn’t related to academic achievement — or as economist Eric Hanushek wrote in a 2003 report: “Overall resource policies have not led to discernable improvements in student performance.” Sibilia says that most school-funding skeptics have focused on total inputs of money to the system, not how it’s distributed, The 74 said.
“It’s not about how much we’re spending but who we’re getting that money to,” Sibilia told The 74. “When 23 states are still funding schools regressively — where low-income communities are getting less money than high-income communities — there is a problem with the level of effort we are putting forward as a country.”
EdBuild’s new report puts it starkly: “Financially, it is far better in the United States to have the luck and lot to attend a school district that is predominantly white than one that enrolls a concentration of children of color. That is the inherent shame of the system we’ve built, and one we haven’t gone far enough to fix.”
Fixing the system, the researchers said, may require “finally commit[ting] to challenging the funding aspect of local control,” according to Pacific Standard.
Rachel Kaufman is Next City's senior editor, responsible for our daily journalism. She was a longtime Next City freelance writer and editor before coming on staff full-time. She has covered transportation, sustainability, science and tech. Her writing has appeared in Inc., National Geographic News, Scientific American and other outlets.