Budget & Finance Q&A

Why Are K-12 Funding Inequities So Pervasive? A French Scholar of U.S. Education Weighs In

By Mark Lieberman — September 13, 2023 6 min read
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Esther Cyna is a rarity among experts on school finance in the United States.

The France native’s first experience with understanding how American public education works was in a class at Columbia University’s Teachers College, where she was surprised to learn that local property taxes form the basis of funding for public schools.

The kicker? “My U.S. classmates were just as shocked,” said Cyna, who currently serves as an assistant professor at Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines.

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Having since written a dissertation on the history of school funding in North Carolina, she’s now more knowledgeable about American school finance than most Americans. Her academic publications examine the intersections of race, economics, and political power to help explain in detail how school funding in North Carolina has evolved, and which groups have benefited and suffered in the process.

The state’s high-profile Leandro court case, in which plaintiffs argue the state falls short of its constitutional duty to provide a “sound, basic education” to all students, has provided plenty of fodder for analysis. Courts in the state have been wrestling with the case for three decades. Advocates believe the process of securing billions of dollars to make up for alleged deficiencies in education funding may continue now that the state’s Supreme Court has undergone a partisan shift.

Education Week interviewed Cyna earlier this year to get her thoughts on the differences between the French and American education systems, the American trend of education privatization, and the often-overlooked racial dimensions of school funding. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you start getting interested in American school finance?

I got into it from the litigation perspective first. I went to the archives and there I found a real disconnect between the stories I could see in court cases and then what I could see on the ground with advocates. They were mostly talking about racial discrimination, while litigation for a whole set of reasons very rarely tackles racial discrimination in school finance.

This was my research question: Why is it that people who live in these places see school finance as a case of racial discrimination, while in school finance litigation, in the literature of school finance, race barely appears or it appears as one factor amongst many others?

The Leandro case has led to North Carolina giving billions of dollars to school districts. I think this will help all children. And in some ways, if the money is distributed efficiently and fairly, then it will help improve racial equity, even though the case does not address racial discrimination directly. But those issues of race are crucial.

What’s the connection, based on your research, between issues of race and the debate over what constitutes public education?

Historically, if you open the question, “How have people understood ‘public’ in ‘public schools?’” that is just a Pandora’s box.

Decades ago in the South, because schools were segregated, many white people understood public schools as sites that they were entitled to as white people because they saw themselves as the only true taxpayers and the only true citizens. If you see public schools as schools for future citizens, there is this racial dimension of white supremacists in the South who refuse to see Black people as citizens, or as equal participants in the society. The next step in that ideology is that Black people are not entitled to public school resources, or to attending public schools.

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How did your experience with the French education system inform your approach to answering these questions?

The main difference is in France, everything’s centralized. Local wealth variations do not have a direct impact on school budgets. It has, of course, an impact on the quality of education through other means: social reproduction, socioeconomic privilege. But it doesn’t shape school resources in the same way.

There’s a disconnect between real estate property values and the money that schools get, between where you live and how much money your school will have. The money that schools get comes from the state anywhere you live. The inequities that you see locally in the U.S. are not as prominent.

The other side of the coin is that there is not a democratic aspect to school finance in the way there is in the U.S. We don’t vote for school bonds. We as citizens have very little voice in how money is distributed and allocated. The voice we have is through voting for our president every five years, but school funding is very rarely on their platform.

What does the divide between public and private schools in France look like?

In France there is no connotation of quality to public schools. Especially in a place like New York where I lived for a few years, it was very clear when people talked about public schools, there was a judgment of quality compared to more prestigious alternatives. The “screen schools” [which have admissions criteria like a required exam] were seen as public schools that were acceptable, or seen as prestigious. I see that in the U.S., public schools are constantly being ranked, constantly being measured, constantly being tested for quality, with the general feeling that they’re a lower quality than their private alternatives, or that they’re decreasing in quality over time. And that’s not true here in France. Private schools are understood as religious schools with no correlation with quality, and some of the most prestigious schools are public schools.

Why do you think the debate over privatization of education in the United States has remained such a central question for many decades?

In the U.S., there is some prestige associated with drawing boundaries, with fences around your house, with having control over what’s in and what’s out. Having a school that screens for admissions, or having a school that has very high tuition rates, ensures that you will be with an exclusive group of people. I’m not saying that that doesn’t exist in France. Some people choose private schools in France for that very reason. It’s just a little less pervasive. There aren’t as many private schools [and there are no] charter schools. That just doesn’t exist here. The reality is that most people only have the option of sending their kids to public schools.

Here in France the debate is not about whether the state is funding private schools. The terms of the debate are really about the separation of church and state. Sometimes it’s not even about funding, but it’s about having a state diploma coming out of a religious school. Where do you draw the line between religion and state? We do have schools that are totally private, and their curriculum is not recognized by the state. And we have private schools that are recognized by the state as schools that train students for the state exam. If you graduate from high school in France, it means the same thing for every French student. It’s not the same as in the U.S.

How does the recent push in America for vouchers and education savings accounts compare with what you’ve seen of private education models in France?

The way that I see things from afar is really the abandonment from the very vision of having a public school system. If you start giving people the idea that they can shop around, you just don’t have a public school system. You’re just eating away at it, and it will end up only serving students who cannot be welcomed at those other institutions.

The utopian idealistic way that people think about it is if everybody attends public schools, then you’ll be seeing people from more diverse backgrounds, you’ll be mixing with different people, it will enrich your mindset and your perspective. Having the experience of public schools exposes you to citizenship in a way that is more meaningful.

Our teachers were all civil servants. You are interacting with your government and your state on a daily basis. And I do think that probably changes your view on citizenship and general participation in democracy.

I don’t think that, in the short term or medium term, it’s realistic that the U.S. would have a totally public school system. It’s worrisome that it’s going further and further away from it.


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