Inequity Is Embedded In School Finance

Our guest author today is Fedrick Ingram, secretary-treasurer of the Albert Shanker Institute and the American Federation of Teachers.

Every February, it comes around: Black History Month. It may seem like a feel-good event that has nothing to do with the nitty gritty of school policy and everything to do with uplift. But in my mind, the Black excellence we celebrate and try to nurture this month is the very reason we scrutinize one of the most foundational school issues we face: School finance.

Before I get to that, let me say the obvious: Black history should not be relegated to one month a year. And it should not be limited to predictable recitations of Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver and Martin Luther King Jr. We need to go deeper.

We need to celebrate intellectual luminaries like Mary McLeod Bethune, Ida B. Wells, Bayard Rustin and Carter G. Woodson—the man who lobbied so hard to establish Black History Month back in the 1920s. And I want to celebrate Black excellence in today’s leaders. People like Rep. Maxine Waters, who has steadily held her ground to protect democracy; Sen. Raphael Warnock, who courageously ran for office in a state unlikely to elect him—and wound up tipping the Senate toward the Democrats by winning a seat once held by a Confederate general; Jason Reynolds, who publishes true-to-life stories that resonate with and engage Black children; and Nikole Hannah-Jones, who gave us the 1619 Project and continues to lift up all the history that has been missing from our classrooms for so very long.

But as much as we have to celebrate, there is still so much more to do. School finance illustrates the point.

Brown v. Board did not save us

To begin with, we all know that Brown v. Board of Education did not solve the problem of segregated schools. “Schools are still segregated, and Black children are paying the price.” That statement is taken directly from the Economic Policy Institute, whose 2020 study proves it as fact. EPI shows that nearly 70 percent of Black children attend a school where a majority of students are Black, Hispanic, Asian or American Indian. Meanwhile, 13 percent of white children attend such schools.

What makes this so unacceptable is that where there is racial segregation, there is economic segregation. Nearly three-quarters of all Black students attend a high-poverty school, while fewer than a third of white students do the same.

This is a shameful inequity. But it is in line with what Black people have historically experienced. Let’s start with the 19th century, when we were shut out of education entirely: Reading and writing were crimes for enslaved people, punishable by whipping or imprisonment. Beginning in the 1930s, redlining, a housing policy that limited Black people to living in certain neighborhoods, separated and underfunded Black communities, including their schools. In the 1950s, Black children were denied any schooling when white families shut down some public schools rather than allow their children to attend with Black neighbors.

School finance and equity

We have come a long way from some of these policies, though we still have a long way to go—and to be truthful, we still feel their impact. But rather than despair about continuing economic inequity in our schools, I am looking to fresh statistics that give us the tools to address it. The Shanker Institute’s recent report, The Adequacy and Fairness of State School Finance Systems, is a great start.

“School funding is a huge factor in the equal opportunity realm,” says Matt Di Carlo, one of the report's co-authors, in a blog post last year. “Districts in which funding is more adequate tend to score higher. No surprise: Funding matters.”

Here are some top lines from the report:

  • Education opportunity in the United States is highly unequal. The poorest districts, on average, spend 17 percent below estimated adequate levels. Meanwhile, the highest-income districts spend 36 percent above adequate levels.
  • There are stark discrepancies in funding by student race and ethnicity. Black and Latinx students are twice as likely as white students to be in underfunded districts. Spending for the typical Black student’s district is 21 percent below adequate. By contrast, spending is 21 percent above adequate levels in the typical white student’s district.
  • In 20 states, K-12 funding is regressive, meaning the poorest districts (which need the funding most) get less funding than higher-income districts.

Many of us don’t need these eye-popping numbers to know the details of inequitable education. We feel it in our bones.

U.S. Funding adequacy by district poverty


I grew up in the housing projects of Miami and attended Title I schools the entire time. Ninety percent of us were on free and reduced lunch. And the education we received—as hard as our teachers and administrators worked—was inferior. Our textbooks were dated. Our school ceilings were falling in. Our air conditioning and heating systems were broken. Our teachers were underpaid and overworked.

This is what it looks like to be funded “below adequate levels,” as the report frames it.

I was lucky, though: We had a music program at my high school. As a young boy with a severe stutter and a family with little money for any of life’s extras, music was a lifeline for me.

Our little band did big things because we had remarkable teachers, not because the state funded us. We all borrowed instruments from the school—20-year-old instruments, in many cases. I vividly remember watching the band director load up his car with old bassoons, saxophones and clarinets at the end of the school day so he could repair them in his home. I later learned that Mr. MacKenzie stayed up until 12 and 1 a.m. to fix those instruments. If he hadn’t, we wouldn’t have been able to perform at Friday night’s football game, or at the local social hall or the church. This is how teachers go above and beyond—back then and today.

Later I experienced inequities at Bethune-Cookman University. Like all HBCUs, we had a history of operating on a shoestring, and that meant limited funds for the band. When I made the state’s intercollegiate band, I saw peers from primarily white institutions with their professional grade instruments. I saw their athletic facilities as well: Their gyms were bigger, and they had ice baths and massage tables and gleaming locker rooms. It goes without saying, we had none of that.

My later experience as a band teacher, again at Title I schools in Miami, showed me inadequate funding from another angle. We never had enough uniforms for everyone. The uniforms we did have were tattered or didn’t fit properly.

And yet we persisted.

That’s what we have to do today. We have to persist. We have to continue to fight for the funding our schools need. And we have to make sure that more money and resources go to the schools that need it most.

Moving forward

This month, as we enjoy earnest proclamations and Black History Month celebrations, listen to young people read Dr. King’s speeches and honor our heroes, let’s not ignore the hard work of digging into the details that contribute to Black excellence—like school finance.

What would it look like if we could use this report as a benchmark to see where we need to go? To advocate for fair funding? What if it were a starting line full of possibility for improvement? What if we used these statistics to convince policymakers to take the politics out of school finance and instead directly address actual student need?

Our moments of joy in accomplishment and even survival are unassailable. But we have to look at continuing inequity as well. Dive into school finances with unwavering advocacy. Build political will. Get into the weeds with state legislatures and district school boards.

We must make sure all students—the ones who live in high-poverty areas as well as the ones who do not—have the resources they need. It is our job to ensure a high-quality education for every one of them.

This is the way I will celebrate Black History Month. By embracing our accomplishments, but also recognizing the inequity of our history, and changing its trajectory for the better.

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