Schools or Police: In Some Cities, a Reckoning on Spending Priorities
For years, school funding and civil rights advocates for majority black school districts have balked at how local police department spending grows while area superintendents are forced to lay off counselors, nurses, social workers, and scores of teachers.
Black children are overpoliced and undereducated already, they have argued. Why not take money from the police department and invest it in the school district?
That argument has often failed to gain support from residents who believe more and higher-paid police are necessary for safer neighborhoods, including in black communities.
Since last month, millions of Black Lives Matter activists have taken to the streets, enraged by the death of George Floyd after a Minneapolis police officer kept his knee pressed on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Their demands for reforming police and defunding them became too loud and too compelling to ignore.
The protests occurred just as school boards, city councils, and county commissioners were putting the final touches on their budgets that would, yet again, result in more police officers and fewer teachers.
The timing has been nothing short of serendipitous, said Jasmine Gripper, the executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, a school funding advocacy group based in New York.
Majority black school districts are now bracing for severe budget cuts due to a precipitous drop in state sales and income tax revenue—the stream of funds that most low-income districts heavily depend on.
But in the short time since the protests began, the movement to defund the police has resulted in millions of dollars being directly transferred from police departments into the coffers of fiscally strapped school districts.
Said Gripper: “The Black Lives Matter movement has been a game changer for us.”
Cities Respond to Calls for Shifting Funds
The city council in Rochester, N.Y., this week laid off its entire school police force and reduced the city police department’s budget by $3 million after local Black Lives Matter activists used a series of rallies to call attention to how the city’s police budget exceeded its K-12, libraries, and youth services budgets combined. The city council redirected more than $130,000 into youth services.
The Rochester school district, under severe financial distress, had just laid off a tenth of its teaching staff and dozens of social workers.
Philadelphia’s mayor earlier this month axed a proposal to increase the police budget by $19 million after local activists, who had been protesting for several weeks straight, questioned, among other things, why the city spends more on police than on the schools. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the school district projects to lose $1 billion in revenue over the next five years.
And in Memphis, school funding advocates have launched a pitched battle over the city council and county commissioners’ police and K-12 spending. Memphis-area politicians last year spent a collective $639 million on its police, courts, and prisons and $580 million on its countywide school district.
"For far too long we've listened to platitudes from elected officials about the importance of reaching our youth, deterring them from a life of crime, about education being key,” said Travone Taylor, a fellow for the Memphis chapter of Stand for Children, which advocates for more school spending.
“All the while, local funding for education has been slashed, as more and more public money is funneled into institutions that further criminalize our young people.”
The growing momentum for defunding police is not happening in a vacuum. It’s happening, Taylor said, “within the context of municipal budgets that prioritize the policing of black and brown bodies more than the development of black and brown minds. We're saying that this has to change, and we can't afford to wait."
‘Wrong Spending Priorities’
Local officials in these cities are arguing that police are essential for keeping residents safe and are a necessary investment for their cities.
In Rochester this week, where the mayor pledged to “reimagine the police,” Police Chief La'Ron Singletary said after the city council’s vote to reduce police spending that lawmakers should tread cautiously.
“I’m concerned that the potential impact of these cuts could impact black and brown communities disproportionately," said Singletary.
Nationally, both K-12 spending and police spending rose dramatically in the last half century. Since 1977, police spending has climbed from $42 billion to $115 billion, according to the Urban Institute, a think tank that tracks government spending. K-12 spending, which comes from a mix of local, state, and federal revenue, has climbed from $300 billion to $750 billion during that time frame, according to federal data.
K-12 and police spending varies widely at the local level and depends on a variety of factors, including how much school districts are subsidized by federal and state spending, employees’ health care and pension costs, and the crime rate.
There are a handful of city councils and county commissions that have oversight of both public school spending and police spending, such as every school district in Tennessee and the largest cities in New York. In those instances, receiving less local property tax revenue forces school districts to be more reliant on state sales and income tax revenue, which is volatile and usually insufficient.
In some other school districts, activists are pressing school board members to explain why they’re laying off teachers but not the police officers assigned to monitor their schools’ hallways, issuing tickets, confiscating cell phones and arresting students, ultimately accelerating the school-to-prison pipeline.
School board members in Denver, Minneapolis, East Lansing, Mich., and Prince George’s County, Md., have all voted in recent weeks to end their districts’ contracts with the local police department, saving millions of dollars in the process.
“We have had the wrong spending priorities,” said Gripper. “We are putting our money in the wrong things. What does it really mean to make people feel safe, supported and seen?”
Fights Over Funding Not Over
In Rochester, the school district has already laid off more than 300 teachers to close a more than $40 million budget deficit. District leaders anticipate having to lay off even more people after the state legislature reconvenes later this summer.
During a rally earlier this month, a group of teachers rolled out a pink banner in front of Rochester’s city hall displaying the number of children impacted by the local school district’s proposed budget cuts.
“They’re defunding education, why not defund the police?” asked Meagan Harris, a longtime 7th and 8th grade special education teacher in Rochester. “What we’re asking for is not abolishing the police. We’re asking that the money that the city council continues to give to the police department, let’s funnel [some of that money] back to the school district.”
And in Memphis, a proposal by the county commission to redirect 5 percent of the sheriff’s budget to a special fund set up partly for the school district led to a shouting match between Commissioner Tami Sawyer and the Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner.
Cutting $18 million from the sheriff’s budget would be “devastating” and might force the county to close its jail, Bonner said.
“To take an almost $18 million cut, there’s no way the sheriff’s office can continue to function the way we’re functioning,” he said during the meeting, according to a recording.
“For you to frame this as we are trying to punish the sheriff – this is not about punishment,” Sawyer shot back. “This is called criminal justice reform and it’s happening across the country whether people like it or not.”
The proposal ultimately failed.