“Charter schools can do more with less” is a common refrain of school choice advocates, who criticize traditional public schools for wasting money. The promise of greater efficiency has been an attractive argument for charters as states struggle to keep up with ever rising educational expenses. Many charter supporters go so far as to say poverty is a poor excuse for underachievement.
In fact, income and wealth consistently rank as the strongest predictors of academic success. But racism is the reason students in black neighborhoods don’t get the finances they need.
Racism creates systems that undervalue black schools, homes and lives, leading to fewer resources for the people who need every cent. If charter backers and other school reformers are really going to uplift black and brown students, they must recognize this and fight funding inequities created by that devaluation of black worth.
Our new research shows that homes in black neighborhoods are devalued, draining critical sources of revenue for school districts – property taxes. Jonathan Rothwell of Gallup, David Harshbarger of Brookings and I found in the average U.S. metropolitan area, homes in neighborhoods where black residents are 50 percent of the population are valued at roughly half the price as homes in neighborhoods with no black residents.
Some might assume that’s because black residents are concentrated in older or less desirable neighborhoods. Segregation and redlining, which deemed black neighborhoods too risky for banks to award loans they gave their white counterparts, certainly kept investments at bay, accelerating depreciation and social decline. But differences in home and neighborhood quality do not fully explain the lower prices of homes in black neighborhoods. Homes of similar quality in majority black neighborhoods with similar amenities are worth 23 percent less than neighborhoods where the black population is 1 percent or fewer. The difference equates to $48,000 per home on average, amounting to $156 billion in cumulative losses in majority black neighborhoods.
There is not a superintendent or school leader in either charter or traditional schools who shouldn’t want $48,000 added back to the value of homes in majority black school districts and cities. This $156 billion in losses due to home devaluation in black neighborhoods limits the ability of localities to raise revenue for their public schools, both charter and traditional.
The Lincoln Institute for Land Policy found that local governments provide nearly half of the funds for local school districts. Federal and state revenue streams fill the remainder. Most states (37) adhere to formulas they’ve created that set a minimum amount of funding per student. In theory, if the amount in property taxes collected in a particular school district is smaller than the set foundation, the state is supposed to step in to fill the gap. But in many states, funding formulas don’t actually equalize funding between property-poor communities and their property-rich counterparts. School districts are already working with fewer resources than they deserve. We have to address racism that leads to the devaluation of property, which robs families and districts of the money schools need to properly serve students.
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The additional property tax dollars that would flow from an equalization of home values could go to fund decent teacher salaries, field trips to museums and colleges, guidance counselors, and other “amenities” even charter supporters should wish all schools could afford (and which many of the most successful charters try to pay for by raising philanthropic dollars to make up for the public funding shortfall). We must address the bias among assessors, real estate agents and assessors because black communities end up shouldering the burdens. It’s time charters acknowledge that in word and deed. Saying charters can do more with less is an acceptance of the racism that hurts families and schools.
As it stands, majority black, low–income places tend to levy higher property taxes to compensate for the inequities: Ford Heights, Park Forest, and Riverdale, all majority-black neighborhoods in southern Cook County, pay the highest tax rates in the county. In Cook County, several low-income, majority-black neighborhoods on the South side of Chicago and its suburbs pay an average of $1,300 more in property taxes than their wealthier and whiter North side counterparts.
These areas are also hit with the double-whammy of population loss, which shrinks the tax base even further. Property taxes in majority-black Baltimore city are more than double that of surrounding neighborhoods in Baltimore County, yet the city still faces regular school closures due to problems with the heating. Of course, much is dependent on how each municipality decides to allocate its property tax revenue. But perhaps these property tax hikes would not be necessary if homes in majority-black neighborhoods were valued appropriately. Cities could then avoid the “tax trap” that has plagued cities like Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, where the struggle between raising taxes or cutting services has given the majority-black, predominately low-income city the highest tax rate in Allegheny County.
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As a former charter school leader who oversaw four schools in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I saw immediately how my peers created cost savings in the efficiency-first environment that turns a blind eye to how racism undervalues black neighborhoods and the children who live there. The tradeoff was worse working conditions for a younger workforce who would work longer hours for less pay. I believed then that the model wasn’t sustainable. Eventually, the sector would attract teachers and staff who wanted the best for their students and themselves. If you’re attracting professionals, many will want to start families or have a social life. Quality employees will demand they are shown dignity.
A decade on, and some charters have started to pay attention. Others will be forced to. On Dec. 4, teachers and staff of the UNO/Acero charter network in Chicago walked off the job, the first time charter school network employees have staged a strike.
“Management has been denying resources from its schools, and ended 2018 spending $1 million LESS in staff salary costs for program services than in 2017,” said a press release from the Chicago Teachers Union, citing an audit it said was provided by the network’s management. The union also cited stagnation in salaries for paraprofessionals as the reason for the strike.
Beyond the problem of whether cost saving charters are sustainable, “more with less” arguments set back racial justice efforts to identify and uproot the real reasons for achievement gaps and improve black communities as a whole. Current black outcomes have a direct link to white families gerrymandering districts to horde wealth and hurt black families. Segregation, racial housing covenants that kept blacks from buying homes in white neighborhoods and redlining, which deemed black areas to great a risk for investment, debilitated black schools.
Property taxes are not only a key source of school district funding, they are the primary source of revenue for the communities they sit in. The think tank the Urban Institute found that local governments receive around 30 percent of their funding from property taxes, a combined sum of $473 billion across all U.S. localities. This is the funding that goes toward parks and other necessities that make children’s lives better, too.
The teachers of the charter network suspended the strike on Monday, December 10. But there’s action management can take to bring a resolution and end the dispute. UNO/Acero can create working conditions that improve the quality of their teachers and students lives, and they can fight for increases in revenues for public schools. If charter schools really want to be seen as a tool for social justice they must address one of the main sources of inequality: funding for schools and racism.
This story about school property taxes was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.