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How good are America’s public schools? It depends on where you live.
Education funding is like any other public infrastructure investment. School systems with sufficient funding tend to get better results. Schools that lack resources are less effective and resilient in the face of ordinary challenges, let alone unprecedented catastrophes like the coronavirus pandemic.
Even as distance-education removes the spatial component from public education — lessons no longer happen in a particular classroom, or at a particular school, but on the (ostensibly worldwide) web — these lines still separate children from one another. The endless Covid-19 crisis is revealing the primary weakness of decentralizing the funding of public services: Stark resource divides that fuel some of the deepest social inequities.
This starts with interstate funding gaps. In states like Kansas and Arizona, leaders have long underfunded their public education systems. This led to the spectacle, early in the pandemic, of Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey announcing that the state would “donate” 200 mobile hotpots to its public schools in an effort to kickstart private hotspot donations. We see even bigger disparities in public preschool spending: In 2019, the District of Columbia spent $18,669 per child, while North Dakota and Nebraska each spent less than $2,000 per child.
At the local level, these resource disparities regularly align with — and exacerbate — longstanding racial, socioeconomic, ethnic and linguistic divisions in American society. According to 2017 data from EdBuild, a nonprofit focused on inequitable education funding, schools in Pennsylvania’s Lower Merion School District were funded to the tune of $25,068 per student, while schools in neighboring Philadelphia received just $12,044. It’s bitterly unsurprising that Lower Merion schools are significantly whiter and wealthier than Philadelphia’s.
Not coincidentally, the Lower Merion School District touts its “one-to-one laptop program … as one of the first in the nation in 2007” to provide all district high-school students with their own laptops. As a result, when the pandemic hit, the district had a relatively smooth pivot to distance-learning. Philadelphia’s schools, meanwhile, struggled mightily to close digital divides that prevented them from quickly launching distance-instruction.
“It’s time to stop pretending that dramatic disparities in education funding aren’t a direct result of our existing system of leaving states, counties, cities and towns to fund public education locally.”
Too often, neighborhood enrollment zones and school district boundaries separate children by race, class and/or national origin. Too often, these boundaries were drawn specifically and intentionally to maintain that separation — and were abetted by racist housing policies. Indeed, recent data suggest that Black, Latinx and Native American families are disproportionately likely to lack access to learning technology and the internet. As schools closed this spring, low-income families were more likely to flag technology access as a problem. Meanwhile, teachers in higher-income schools were more likely to report that they had successfully moved instruction online.
That’s why it’s toughest for historically marginalized families to be living and learning in this moment. The pandemic is amplifying injustices baked into the American status quo. First, members of these communities are getting sicker and dying at higher rates of Covid-related illnesses than white families. What’s more, children of color, children from low-income families, children of immigrants, English learners and children with disabilities face steeper challenges — and inequitable access to educational resources — across the board.
This is especially challenging given our society’s reliance on schools to provide a wide array of social services for children and their families. School closures don’t just cut off children’s educational opportunities — they also derail families’ access to food, healthcare and technology.
Without major public efforts to disrupt these dynamics, the current crisis stands to dramatically expand opportunity gaps in U.S. public education. The federal government’s failure to contain the virus means we’re stuck with distance-learning for the long haul, which means we must identify solutions today.
In the immediate term, the country must provide schools with significant additional funding. State and local budgets are shrinking and, absent federal support, schools will flounder. New federal funding must include efforts to close digital divides: ensuring that all students have access to the internet and a computer. Whatever remote-learning’s flaws, access to the internet and a computer are no longer optional. Without them, too many students will be unable to reach the instructional and social offerings their schools provide.
The federal government should also dedicate resources to training teachers to support historically marginalized communities. Students from these communities — especially English learners and students with disabilities — are likely to need targeted support.
“The endless Covid-19 crisis is revealing the primary weakness of decentralizing the funding of public services.”
When the pandemic recedes, the country should prepare for a painful reckoning.
It’s time to stop pretending that dramatic disparities in education funding aren’t a direct result of our existing system of leaving states, counties, cities and towns to fund public education locally. The concept of “local control” is grounded in and reflective of systemic racism, and it makes public education both less fair and more precarious.
The United States must make public education a federal — and federally funded — priority. Meanwhile, states and local communities should supplement federal funding using equitable formulas that prioritize schools serving large numbers of historically marginalized groups, particularly communities of color and English learners.
In truth, the pandemic hasn’t revealed anything new. It’s simply revealed the inequities that too many of America’s children have faced every day for decades. When it finally subsides, leaders must be ready to ensure that our schools are never so vulnerably unequal again.
Conor P. Williams is a fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, and a partner with the Children’s Equity Project.
Shantel Meek is founding director of the Children’s Equity Project, a national, multi-university initiative housed at Arizona State University.