Over my 25 years as an educator, I have worked as a teacher and principal, and I have also worked in philanthropy. I have seen how our nation’s public education system is not serving its students equitably, especially students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.
As a philanthropic funder, I traveled the country supporting schools, districts and communities, but no matter where I visited, there was one consistent storyline: Schools that predominantly served black and brown students seemed to have the least resources and were the most underfunded.
While working in the Chicago Public Schools as a principal and an assistant principal, I had my eyes opened to the funding and resource inequities across schools and neighborhoods. It was clear to me that, in most cases, if your school was just a traditional neighborhood school, located in a poor neighborhood and/or not classified as a focused school for high-performing students, funding and educational opportunities were scarce.
I’ve witnessed school and district administrators suggest that tenured teachers’ salaries were too high and negatively affecting the school budget, regardless of their performance. It was sometimes suggested that you can get two (tenured) teachers for the price of one (inexperienced) teacher. This was also compounded by the implementation of student-based budgeting, which in layman’s terms means that school budgets are calculated based on the average number of students enrolled over a period of years, with the idea being that the money follows the child.
In theory this made sense, yet as a new principal, whose enrollment increased by more than 100 students over my first year, I had to start my second year down two or three teachers due to district calculations. The loss of these teachers was despite evidence revealing the academic progress and many improvements the school had made. Consequently, classrooms ballooned to 40 or 50 students, and many lacked proper air-conditioning units during 90-degree days.
In response, teachers struggled with classroom management; parents complained about teachers’ inabilities to instruct students and manage classrooms; and student altercations increased. Despite all of this, teachers were still expected to prepare students to perform at their highest levels on upcoming classroom and district assessments.
Inadequate public education funding has been a perpetual and devastating problem, particularly for students of color and those in areas of concentrated poverty. On the whole, non-white school districts receive $23 billion less than white school districts, despite serving the same number of students. Between 2005 and 2017, U.S. public schools were underfunded by $580 billion in Title 1 and IDEA federal dollars alone — money that is targeted specifically to support 30 million of our most vulnerable students. The data are clear: When comparing schools and districts that are well-sourced and supported with those that are not, the achievement outcomes are higher.
Until you have to decide between a new curriculum or an additional teacher, an after-school program or a full-day kindergarten, or lunch for yourself or library books for your students, you can’t empathize with the realities that many educators face when school funding is insufficient. Educators have to be valued for their voices and ideas leading the discussion; principals and teachers must be supported in order to be better partners to one another and the community; and schools must be equipped with more than the bare minimum. Closing achievement gaps requires an approach based on the principles of democracy and equity.
Addressing inequality requires us to have uncomfortable conversations about unresolved personal issues as well as biases about race and class. We can’t afford to ignore the big, complex picture of inequity in education. Let’s resist the urge to oversimplify the complex issues we face, and commit ourselves to an integrated domestic policy that can prepare children for their futures.
Equity starts at the top, with the implementation of federal policies that support teachers and students. Right now, that means encouraging our government to fully fund Title I and the Every Student Succeeds Act, both of which address inequality through funding schools in disadvantaged communities and making youth a priority in this country. We get what we put in, not just to our schools but to our entire society and democracy.
Another way to address inequality is through Community Schools — public schools that partner with families and local organizations to support the full development and growth of young people. These schools provide a level playing field for learning because each Community School is a reflection of local needs, assets and priorities. No two look exactly alike. Community Schools show how all schools, policies and programs of the future will need to be coordinated, comprehensive, adaptive and, above all else, equitable.
At a time when inequality in our education system is at a peak, it is critical that we work together to fund our schools and not be dissuaded by the seeming difficulty of the charge. Rather, let’s forge ahead and recommit ourselves to the promise of a public education system that is fully supported by our government and community, and that provides equitable opportunities for all students.
This story about K-12 funding inequities was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Frank London Gettridge is executive director of the National Public Education Support Fund and an educator who has dedicated his career to improving the lives of the most vulnerable children and families.