The killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by Minneapolis police turned a national spotlight on the urgent need to address systemic inequities affecting America’s black communities. While the focus has been on police reform, and rightly so, it’s important to consider other policy areas that also create an uneven playing field for people of color. Among the most consequential is how states fund schools.
At a time when our country is fiercely divided along partisan lines, school finance reform presents an opportunity for meaningful bipartisan policy change. Public education is primarily funded by state and local tax dollars. While every state has a funding formula containing some mechanism for equalizing revenue across school districts, most states don’t give low-income students their fair share. Affluent communities can more easily tap into their tax bases to raise additional dollars, which can lead to gaping inequities that too often shortchange students of color.
For example, in St. Louis County (Mo.) the school districts with the highest proportion of black students — Jennings and Riverview — take in less than half the money per student compared to nearby Brentwood, which generated more than $21,000 per student in 2017-18.
Another stark example of racial bias can be found in Pennsylvania, which has a large “hold harmless” provision ensuring that school districts with a history of higher school funding don’t fall below a certain funding level, regardless of how their students’ needs compare to students in other districts. This results in resources being redistributed from poorer, high-minority school districts to whiter, wealthier districts. Consequently, Pennsylvania shortchanges school districts with the highest proportions of black students by nearly $2,000 per pupil, and funds the whitest districts at $2,000 per-pupil above what the state formula would otherwise determine to be their fair share.
If education were criminal justice, school finance data highlighting huge inequities would be the brutal videos exposing systemically racist policies in need of reform. So, what can policymakers do at a time when states already face potentially deep budget cuts because of the recession and COVID-19 shutdowns?
In the short term, states can account for current spending levels when reducing education budgets. While across-the-board cuts that take the same amount of state funding away from all school districts might sound fair, a better approach would be to cut from high-spending districts first and only then make broader adjustments after things have been leveled so existing inequities aren’t exacerbated or ignored.
Long term, more substantive school finance reforms are needed and the best solution is to untether the relationship between school funding and zip codes. Ideally, local property wealth should play no role in determining school funding levels. Dollars instead should be pooled at the state level and allocated transparently based on enrollment and student needs.
While no system is perfect, some states already have models to emulate. Vermont implemented a statewide education property tax to replace local property taxes, and California’s Local Control Funding Formula eliminated funding gaps that were hurting its highest poverty schools.
Although these types of solutions are more typically advanced by left-leaning advocates, conservatives and libertarians should support reforms that base education funding entirely on students, promote transparency, and treat communities equally under the law.
To be sure, even with broad bipartisan support, school finance reform is still tricky. The most stubborn obstacles to putting black communities on equal footing are often the affluent school districts that benefit from the status quo. This is why their leaders — elected school board members and superintendents in particular — should speak out against systemic inequities in education funding.
As leaders signal support for Black Lives Matter on social media, politicians and educators have a responsibility to take tangible actions to implement overdue school finance solutions.
A version of this column previously appeared in The Hill.