It’s hard to imagine another modern-day institution that has categorically robbed Black Americans of as much life, liberty, and wealth as the criminal-justice system. Racist policing literally arrests economic and social mobility, cutting Black breadwinners, innovators, and taxpayers out of the economy.
But as pernicious as the criminal-justice system has been, we have yet to reckon with another system that arrests Black mobility just as, if not more, chronically: a school financing system built on segregation, in which schools predominated by students of color receive an annual $23 billion less than majority-white institutions.
School financing systems, which draw upon local property taxes, epitomize structural inequality. District boundaries have been significantly influenced by white people’s collective refusal—cloaked in a pursuit of “choice"—to integrate neighborhoods and schools.
Federal policies and local actors have downgraded residential properties in Black neighborhoods throughout the 20th century while facilitating growth in the white suburbs. In 2018, the Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program published a report on Black housing assets in which my colleagues and I found that—after controlling for factors such as housing quality, neighborhood quality, education, and crime—owner-occupied homes in Black neighborhoods are undervalued by $48,000 per home on average. Nationwide, this disparity amounts to a whopping $156 billion in annual cumulative losses.
As damaging as these structural systems are, they also reinforced the white-supremacist myth that the condition of Black neighborhoods and schools are a direct result of the people in them. Our research found, however, that it is the concentration of Black people, not their actions, that is associated with lower home values. Devalued homes equal less money from property taxes, which nets less funding for schools. Less money for schools results in lower educational outcomes.
When you accept the status quo, you have little room but to blame Black people for a system we didn't create."
Massive racial disparities in funding disempower students of color, who make up the majority of those who attend public schools. Teachers in these districts, who have fewer resources to work with, are also disempowered.
Research from Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis shows what should be intuitive: Community wealth is positively correlated with academic achievement. Education reforms have the ability to develop communities in ways that can add value to Black people. Yet many education reformers avoid, accept, or even embrace segregation as the status quo.
In a 2017 public statement responding to an Associated Press report that showed charters were more segregated than traditional schools, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools essentially said that it was not their concern: “In the end, parents’ and students’ opinions are the only ones that matter.”
Of the many problems with the charter lobby’s statement, one stands out. When you reform within the confines of inequality, when you accept the status quo, you have little room but to blame Black people for a system we didn’t create.
When I was a charter school leader in New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I saw how the charter takeover of a Black-majority district resulted in the summary firing of a mostly Black education workforce, which led to significant reductions of Black educators. In the 2004-05 academic year, the year before Katrina, 17 percent of the teachers in New Orleans public schools had less than three years of experience—a gauge of lower-quality teaching—according to Tulane University’s Cowen Institute. By 2009-10, that percentage had more than doubled.
The percentage of Black teachers dropped from 71 percent to 49 percent between 2005 and 2014, which was equivalent to about 4 percent of the entire African American working-age population of New Orleans at the time, according to the Education Research Alliance.
That precipitous decline could not have happened without deliberate efforts to import a younger, whiter workforce. Reformers were more than willing to rebuild the same racist structures without Black women—the largest demographic among the fired employees.
These education “reforms” clearly eroded the Black middle-class tax base and reduced job opportunities for Black children upon graduation—the people reform was supposed to help.
Black districts, teachers, students, and parents don’t need fixing. The so-called Black-white “achievement gap” is more illustrative of the systematic devaluation of Black lives than revealing something broken with Black students or schools. Black students don’t need vouchers, charters, and other choice mechanisms that don’t address the source of inequality. There’s nothing wrong with Black people that ending racism can’t solve.
Education reform moving forward must restore the value that’s been extracted by racism—adding jobs, wealth, education, and political power to Black districts and communities.
Luckily, there are those who choose to dismantle the sources of inequality rather than reform within those structures.
In a substantive attempt to level the education playing field, in October 2019, a Maryland state panel voted to recommend a new funding formula that calls for school spending to increase by $4 billion per year by 2030. About a third of that increase, $1.2 billion, would come from local municipalities, with the state picking up the remaining $2.8 billion per year—37 percent more than it currently spends. The increases would be phased in over the course of this decade. How to pay for this plan—which would benefit low-income districts—will certainly be a challenge amid a pending recession. But if Black lives are to matter, states must alter their funding formulas.
We must hire also more Black teachers.
Black students who have one Black teacher by 3rd grade are 7 percent more likely to graduate from high school and 13 percent more likely to enroll in college, according to a 2018 analysis by researchers Seth Gershenson, Cassandra M. D. Hart, Joshua Hyman, Constance Lindsay, and Nicholas W. Papageorge. After having two Black teachers, Black students’ likelihood of enrolling in college increases by 40 percent.
The Black Lives Matter movement has catalyzed substantive changes to federal, state, and local criminal-justice policies. It’s past time we have a similar reckoning with an unjust education system that has left so many Black children and teachers behind.
A version of this article appeared in the September 02, 2020 edition of Education Week as The Hidden Racism of Our School Financing System