Education Funding

Meet the New Group Promising to Tackle School Funding and Segregation Together

By Mark Lieberman — June 19, 2023 7 min read
Kanya Redd, 15, explores an exhibit on segregation at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park Visitor's Center on April 18, 2023 in Atlanta. The new cultural exchange initiative is sponsored by Martha's Table, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit committed to expanding opportunity and economic mobility. Approximately 75% of the participants traveled by plane for the first time to get to Atlanta.
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A pair of public school experts argue that two of the most enduring challenges in education—underresourced schools and schools that remain highly segregated by race and income—are too often seen as separate problems with distinct solutions. They’ve formed a new organization in hopes of bringing the goals of more funding and a richer mix of students in schools together.

Brown’s Promise, launching this month, is a nonprofit sponsored by the Southern Education Foundation that will support litigation and advocacy centered around addressing the roots of school segregation and underfunding of public schools at the same time. The organization’s name refers to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, setting the stage for the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

“There’s such a clear vision articulated in the Brown decision about what public education is supposed to be in this country. We haven’t gotten there yet,” said Saba Bireda, one of the co-founders. “We really want folks to ask themselves the question, why is it okay that our schools are just as segregated as they were as when the Brown case was being heard? Are we okay with that? I don’t think we should be.”

Bireda was senior legal counsel in the Education Department’s office for civil rights in the mid-2010s, and has been a partner since 2016 for Sanford Heisler Sharp, a public-interest law firm. She also served on the governing board that oversees charter schools in the District of Columbia from 2016-2021.

Co-founder Ary Amerikaner served for two years as deputy assistant secretary of the office of elementary and secondary education in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration, and she’s since worked for the advocacy group EdTrust, the Maryland department of education, and as an education adviser to the Biden-Harris presidential transition team in 2020.

The group’s advisory board also includes Derek Black, professor at the University of Carolina School of Law; David Sciarra, former executive director of the Education Law Center; Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO at the Learning Policy Institute; and John King, former U.S. Secretary of Education under President Obama.

Education Week spoke to Amerikaner and Bireda last week to find out what they hope to accomplish with Brown’s Promise, and what obstacles they foresee needing to overcome. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Where did the idea for this organization come from?

Amerikaner: My portfolio in the Obama administration was really concentrated on resource equity: advancing school funding equity, equitable access to advanced coursework and great teachers. Saba’s portfolio was focused on diversity and civil rights. We rarely found ourselves in the same room talking about these topics together. That’s not an indictment of any individual person or leader. It’s emblematic of advocacy and the field writ large. There are advocates focused on moving money and resources around, and then another group focused on moving kids around. Very rarely are we strategically talking about how to do those things together.

Why do you believe these two issues ought to be considered in tandem?

Amerikaner: We think that the school funding field has been banging our heads against the same wall for more than two decades, ignoring the boundaries and borders and broken policies that create those concentrations of poverty and racial isolation in the first place. Those borders and boundaries are not written in stone.

Today’s patterns of segregation are creating far more expense overall in the system. It is more expensive to adequately fund schools serving high concentrations of poverty, requiring a whole lot of redistribution from wealthier place A to less wealthy place B.

We know that in some places where we’ve seen success moving money around, there’s still too often this overreliance on exclusionary discipline, overreliance on novice first-year teachers, underprovision of advanced rigorous academics.

What will Brown’s Promise do to drive these goals?

Amerikaner: We’re launching Brown’s Promise to support state advocates and litigators in individual states by making sure they have the research they need, existing or new, to change the national narrative on school diversity and school funding, to include both of these topics together. We’re building relationships and knowledge across those fields; developing and refining legal theories, remedies, and policy solutions. People have not been asking these questions, much less coming up with the new innovative answers, as much as we think they should be.

We are committed to this vision because we know from very solid research that diverse schools help all kids, and that diverse schools are especially powerful for students of color. We know that desegregation led to a 30 percent increase in Black graduation rates, a 20 percent increase in Hispanic graduation rates, and a 22 percent decrease in Black poverty.

We also know from research that beyond these life-changing, meaningful outcomes, it also matters for all students to work together, to collaborate. These are the things that in an increasingly diverse economy and democracy, we cannot be ignoring in our public schools. It’s one of the only public institutions something like 90 percent of people go through.

Why do you think these two core issues have played out separately in recent decades?

Bireda: One lineage is the fallout from San Antonio v. Rodriguez, [when the Supreme Court ruled that school funding systems centered on local property tax revenue didn’t violate the Constitution].

A separate lineage is the school desegregation lineage post-Brown. Those cases were attempting to address the growing white flight out of urban areas. That has been a totally separate set of litigation versus the school finance litigation, which is advancing around state constitutional law. For years those folks have been litigating their cases well, but not thinking about the intersection.

The school finance litigation has run its course in many states. The school desegregation litigation, same situation in many districts. The Supreme Court has been extremely restrictive and less hospitable towards districts wanting to use race as a method to increase diversity. Both of those types of litigation are kind of calling out for new ideas.

Amerikaner: The available data has really reinforced the distinction. Until very recently, the only reliable school funding data we had was at the district level. People thought school funding is about between-district stuff. And now, with school-level data, it helps to expand the conversation. School financing is about both within and across districts. Similarly, on the school integration side, they have primarily been focused on within districts. But now we can start to look at these issues regionally.

What is the legal argument for tackling these two issues together?

Bireda: We need to be able to show that there’s some type of state constitutional violation. We’ll be looking at, what is a state’s obligation to provide a thorough and efficient public education. We really want to push the boundaries of that interpretation. The state’s obligation isn’t only to provide adequate funding. Kids aren’t getting the education they’re promised by their state constitutions. We would be pushing for remedies that are breaking down those boundaries.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that every kid’s going to go to a brand new school. But it does mean taking a new approach to the way kids are being assigned to schools in the way that we’re constructing school district boundaries. There are lessons learned from magnet schools, from choice that we’ll be able to pull from.

I went to schools as part of a court-ordered desegregation program. There wasn’t a lot of attention being paid—is tracking happening, are Black and brown kids being disciplined more.

We’re very concerned about the student experience at those schools. We’re making sure those kids are together but also making sure the student experience is one where all kids can thrive.

The dominant political narratives in education now are far from core questions about funding and segregation. How do you plan to break through the noise?

Bireda: We’re strategic about where we think we would want to do this work. There are places where the political fight would take up all of our time. We wouldn’t be able to get to the point of trying to build alliances or get people talking about this topic where they haven’t thought about it before.

My hope is through the work of bringing people together of different backgrounds, that when you are in a community with people, it’s much harder to say things like, we shouldn’t have books about Rosa Parks. It’s easier to have those conversations in isolated, segregated communities. It’s easier to have “others” because you don’t have to interact with them.

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