In the run-up to a new school year, I was proud to contribute $100 to the parent teacher association at my son’s school for classroom supplies. It seemed an uncontroversial ask — of course I wanted his class to have the supplies they needed for the year. And for those who can easily afford it, this sort of donation, or, at some schools, the purchase of the supplies themselves, can seem entirely innocuous.
But why exactly are parents paying for paper and pencils? You know, those things schools should have in their supply cabinets. Unfortunately, school cupboards across the country are bare — or at least underfunded.
“Between 2005 and 2017, public schools in the U.S. were underfunded by $580 billion in federal dollars alone — money that was specifically targeted to support 30 million of our most vulnerable students,” says a new report published by the education advocacy nonprofit, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools. The research report, “Confronting the Education Debt,” provides an overview of how state and federal governments subvert programs designed to address poverty; reduce revenues through tax breaks; and divert fiscal resources from public schools, burdening black and brown children who make up the majority of public school students.
The adage that you can do less with more doesn’t hold up when it comes to education. There are bigger budgetary issues behind school supply drives. If districts don’t have enough money for pencils, teachers’ salaries will eventually join glue sticks and permanent markers on the need-to-buy list.
“It’s increasingly clear that the school district has a very different set of priorities than you do,” said Tacoma Education Association president Angel Morton, speaking to a crowd of mostly teachers at a rally on September 5 in the high school’s gymnasium, according to local newspaper The News Tribune. Teachers in Tacoma and Puyallup, Washington, went on strike on the scheduled first day of school to increase the pressure on the district to agree to their terms in a new contract. The heart of the strike is teachers’ salaries.
Districts across the country aren’t adequately funded to properly educate children or to give teachers cost of living increases. Los Angeles teachers, organized by the United Teachers of Los Angeles, have been working without a contract for over a year. They recently voted to authorize a strike, meaning their members will walk out if union leaders call on them. Again, salaries are at the core of the dispute — they are seeking a 6.5 percent pay raise — but according to reporting by Education Week, “they also want class-size reductions, changes to the teacher-evaluation system, and more school nurses, librarians, and restorative-justice advisors.”
No wonder then that schools are asking for pencil money! They’re looking for the money they’re owed, for new textbooks, lab equipment, updated technology, teaching assistants and materials for special-needs students.
The Confronting the Education Debt report builds upon the research of retired University of Wisconsin-Madison education professor Gloria Ladson-Billings, who argued that instead of focusing on the achievement gap, which focuses on disparities in test scores, we should focus on the “education debt” — the historic devaluation of school systems that educate black and brown children through segregation, discrimination and unequal school finance systems based on property taxes that enable wealthier neighborhoods to hoard wealth and maintain racially separate school systems. These systems prohibit states from distributing tax dollars where there is greater need.
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The report’s findings illustrate Congress’ failures over time to fully fund the U.S. Department of Education’s Title I grant program, which provides funding to low-income schools and districts to help fill gaps created by inequitable school financing systems. The Title I program identifies what fiscal resources schools need, but Congress hasn’t allocated enough resources to meet those needs.
“Aggregated over the past 13 years — the length of a child’s elementary and secondary school career — Congress has failed to appropriate $347 billion towards the education of low income students, primarily Black and Brown,” the report says. “That averages out to a shortfall of just under $27 billion per year.”
The report states that if Title I were fully funded, schools would be able to provide health, dental, vision, and mental health services for every student, ensure the presence of a full-time nurse, librarian, and counselor in every Title I school, and teaching assistants in each of their classrooms. And there would likely be far fewer PTA fundraisers.
In addition, the report references the anti-tax revolution, which began in the ’80s and continues today, and promotes the idea that government-imposed taxes are unfair or that they stifle innovation and economic growth. The movement manifests itself in corporate tax breaks, which don’t require companies to contribute their fair share to state taxes, a significant part of districts’ budgets. Meanwhile, ordinary people are left to fill the gaps. But it’s unreasonable to think individuals can fill the hole left from systemic underfunding at the federal and state levels.
In states such as South Carolina, the funding gap between rich and poor districts is wide and deep. For instance, the Fairfield School District allocates $18,507 a student but in Dillon 3 School District, that amount is $7,546.
Inequality in funding manifests itself in growing gaps in achievement between students from wealthy and poor families. In a 2011 report about the wealth gap’s impact on academic achievement, Stanford University researcher Sean Reardon found that “the achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born twenty-five years earlier.”
Black and brown students are becoming more concentrated in low-income schools. When the system doesn’t value minority kids, it won’t find it necessary to invest in them or the institutions they use. There is a cycle of devaluation that hinders the life chances of low-income students. That’s why it’s on teachers and parents to stand up for what they and their children are worth, to demand what they are owed.
Throughout the last academic year, strikes in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma and Kentucky raised these same issues. Given the constant pressure to do less with more as well as the inadequate federal support states receive, I’m surprised that we haven’t seen more strikes.
Parents should take these teachers’ lead and join them. Get out of the line to buy school supplies and get in line to demand the state fully fund public schools.