The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is urging Congress to take “bold action” to address inequitable funding in the country’s public school system, publishing Thursday a sweeping report examining how K-12 funding negatively impacts the educational opportunities of low-income students and students of color.
“Although the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that public education is a right that should be available to all on equal terms, the longstanding and persistent reality is that vast funding inequities in our state public education systems render the education available to millions of American public school students profoundly unequal,” the report states.
Among other things, the committee’s report recommends Congress incentivize states to adopt more-equitable school finance systems, ensure adequate funding for students with disabilities and to invest more in facilities maintenance.
In addition, the report recommends Congress increase federal funding to supplement state funding and develop mechanisms to better monitor school spending data and evaluate its effectiveness in closing achievement gaps.
The findings of the 158-page report are not surprising: Students who live in segregated neighborhoods and concentrations of poverty lack access to high-quality schools, and low-income students and students of color – who account for the majority of students in schools in those neighborhoods – are zoned to schools with less experienced teachers, fewer advanced course offerings, outdated technology and instructional materials, and facilities in need of maintenance.
“Students who live in high-poverty neighborhoods often attend schools that lack the financial resources to provide them with quality educational opportunities, as school resources are so closely tied to the wealth of the surrounding community,” Catherine Lhamon, chair of the committee, wrote in a letter to the president, vice president and leaders of the U.S. House and Senate in introducing the report.
“An achievement gap has resulted and persisted, largely between students who attend well-funded schools in low-poverty neighborhoods and the most disadvantaged students—often students of color and students from poor households—who attend poorly-funded schools in high-poverty neighborhoods,” she said.
Despite federal reauthorizations of the federal K-12 education law, the pillar of which is a program known as Title I that directs funding to school districts with lots of poor studentsto ensure they have access to education on par with their wealthier peers, the committee report found that the updates have done little to balance the playing field when it comes to funding and resources – though it’s moved the needle some on academic achievement.
To be sure, state and local governments shoulder the lion’s share of spending on K-12 schools, accounting for about 90 percent of all school budgets. But how much state and local governments provide varies significantly and the formulas they use to distribute those dollars can often have unintended consequences, sometimes resulting in more money directed to already well-resourced schools and districts.
In fact, 21 states, up from 14 last year, use funding formulas that provide less funding to school districts with higher concentrations of low‐income students, according to recent research from policymakers at the Education Law Center and Rutgers University’s Graduate School of Education.
Exacerbating funding inequity and access to resources further, local spending is dictated by property taxes, meaning property values and the wealth of a community often dictate the quality of schools. That’s why, for example, poorer schools often have less experienced and lower-paid teachers, fewer advanced placement courses, less access to school counselors and old facilities.
Just last week, for example, during a record-breaking stretch of cold weather, Baltimore city schools shut down as heating and plumbing failed in several of its schools.
Moreover, those poorer schools often tend to serve the most disadvantaged students, including low-income students, students of color, those still learning English and those with disabilities – all of whom require higher levels of funding to overcome the financial challenges of meeting their unique educational needs.
Segregation in schools by race and income is getting worse, the report underscores.
Some school districts are still under their original desegregation consent decrees as a result of the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, having never sufficiently addressed its segregation issues. Others, meanwhile, are finding new ways to self-segregate, with some wealthier and white communities attempting to break away from their poorer and more diverse school district.
“Over the past three decades, wealth disparities have increased and poverty has become more concentrated in certain areas, disproportionately affecting racial and ethnic minorities,” the report states. “Residential segregation exacerbates inequity in educational opportunities, and with the changing demographics of school enrollment, many students of color experience ‘double segregation,’ or segregation by both race/ethnicity and concentrated poverty.”
With the complicated issue of the intersection of school funding and segregation getting more attention from researchers, policymakers and the news media, more is being done to challenge states and districts that are hampering desegregation efforts.
Earlier this week, for example, the Minnesota Supreme Court heard oral arguments for a case faulting the state for maintaining highly segregated schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Undercutting the entire issue, however, is residential segregation, the report stresses, arguing that the adoption of thoughtful federal policies could help drive integration.
“Essentially, housing policy is education policy,” the report concludes, “and with greater collaboration at the federal, state and local levels, policies can be developed that can successfully integrate communities, integrate schools, raise achievement for all students, and ultimately realize the goals of Brown.”
It’s unclear, however, whether there’s appetite in Congress to take on such a heavy lift. Two years ago, lawmakers passed a bipartisan overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known now as the Every Student Succeeds Act, which states are just beginning to implement. And despite attempts by politicians on both sides of the aisle, they couldn’t muster enough support to make changes to Title I funding aimed at directing more resources to states with more poor students.
“The commission majority urges Congress to act now to secure a federal education right and incent swift and strong state action to protect learning opportunity for all students,” Lhamon said in a statement.