Americans like to believe that education can be a great equalizer, allowing even the poorest child who studies hard to enter the middle class. But when I looked at what academic researchers and federal data reports have said about the great educational divide between the rich and poor in our country, that belief turns out to be a myth. Basic education, from kindergarten through high school, only expands the disparities.
In 2015, during the Obama administration, the federal education department issued a report that showed how the funding gap between rich and poor schools grew 44 percent over a decade between 2001-2 and 2011-12. That meant that the richest 25 percent of school districts spent $1,500 more per student, on average, than the poorest 25 percent of school districts.
I wish I could have continued to track this data between rich and poor schools to see if school spending had grown more fair. But the Trump administration crunched the numbers differently. When it issued a report in 2018, covering the 2014-15 school year, it found that the wealthiest 25 percent of districts spent $450 more per student than the poorest 25 percent.
That didn’t mean there was a giant 70 percent improvement from $1,500. The Trump administration added together all sources of funds, including federal funding, which amounts to 8 percent of total school spending, while the Obama administration excluded federal funds, counting only state and local dollars, which make up more than 90 percent of education funds. The Obama administration argued at the time that federal funds for poor students were intended to supplement local funds because it takes more resources to overcome childhood poverty, not to create a level playing field.
Rather than marking an improvement, there were signs in the Trump administration data that the funding gap between rich and poor had worsened during the Great Recession if you had compared the figures apples to apples, either including or excluding federal funds. In a follow-up report issued in 2019, the Trump administration documented that the funding gap between rich and poor schools had increased slightly to $473 per student between the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years.
It’s not just a divide between rich and poor but also between the ultra rich and everyone else. In 2020, a Pennsylvania State University researcher documented how the wealthiest school districts in America — the top 1 percent — fund their schools at much higher levels than everyone else and are increasing their school spending at a faster rate. The school funding gap between a top 1 percent district (mostly white suburbs) and an average-spending school district at the 50th percentile widened by 32 percent between 2000 and 2015, the study calculated. Nassau County, just outside New York City on Long Island, has the highest concentration of students who attend the best funded public schools among all counties in the country. Almost 17 percent of all the top 1 percent students in the nation live in this one county.
Funding inequities are happening in a context of increased poverty in our schools. In 2013, I documented how the number of high poverty schools had increased by about 60 percent to one out of every five schools in 2011 from one out of every eight schools in 2000. To win this unwelcome designation, 75 percent or more of an elementary, middle or high school’s students lived in families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. It’s since gotten worse. In the most recent federal report, covering the 2016-17 school year, one out of every four schools in America was classified as high poverty.
It’s not just that poverty is becoming more concentrated in certain schools; more students in the school system are poor. In 2014, I documented a 40 percent jump in the number of school-aged children living in poverty between 2000 and 2012 from one out of every seven children to one out of every five students. In the most recent report, for the 2016-17 school year, the poverty rate declined from 21 percent in 2010 to 18 percent in 2017. About 13 million children under the age of 18 were in families living in poverty.
When you break the data down by race, there are other striking patterns. One third of all Black children under 18 were living in poverty in 2016-17, compared with a quarter of Hispanic children. White and Asian children have a similar poverty rate of 11 percent and 10 percent, respectively.
Sociologists like Sean Reardon at Stanford University and Ann Owens at the University of Southern California have built a body of evidence that school segregation by income is what’s really getting worse in America, not school segregation by race. But it’s a complicated argument because Black and Latino students are more likely to be poor and less likely to be rich. So the two things — race and poverty — are intertwined.
In 2019, Reardon studied achievement gaps in every school in America and found that the difference in poverty rates between predominantly Black and predominantly white schools explains the achievement gaps we see and why white schools tend to show higher test scores than Black schools. When white and Black schools have the same poverty rates, Reardon didn’t see a difference in academic achievement. The problem is that Black students are more often poor and attending schools with more poor students. And other than a handful of high-performing charter schools in a few cities, he couldn’t find examples of academic excellence among schools with a high-poverty student body.
“It doesn’t seem that we have any knowledge about how to create high-quality schools at scale under conditions of concentrated poverty,” said Reardon. “And if we can’t do that, then we have to do something about segregation. Otherwise we’re consigning Black and Hispanic and low-income students to schools that we don’t know how to make as good as other schools. The implication is that you have got to address segregation.”
Previous Proof Points columns cited in this column:
This story about education inequality in America written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.