In the United States today approximately 12.8 million students—or 27 percent of all those in school—attend school in a district in which over 75 percent of students are non-white. In a new report, researchers at EdBuild, a non-profit that analyzes school-funding issues, calculate that these students are getting dramatically shortchanged on the school-funding front.
The majority of racially concentrated, non-white districts are also low-income. Poor, non-white districts educate about 20 percent of American students. By contrast, while 26 percent of American students attend school in a district where more than 75 percent of students are white, only 5 percent attend school in a racially concentrated, white, poor district.
The researchers at EdBuild calculated that racially concentrated non-white districts receive, on average, only $11,682 of funding per student, in comparison to $13,908 for racially concentrated, white districts. Collectively, this means that, as EdBuild notes, "nonwhite school districts receive $23 billion less than white districts, despite serving the same number of students."
Gaps between racially concentrated white and non-white districts persist even among high-poverty schools. On average, nationwide, high-poverty white districts receive approximately $1,500 more per student than high-poverty non-white districts (although they still receive less funding than wealthier white districts). Additionally, even low-poverty non-white districts receive less per-student funding than high-poverty white districts.
School funding matters. In an oft-cited paper published in the American Economic Journal, the economists Julien Lafortune, Jesse Rothstein, and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach calculated that 1990s-era school finance reforms produced "large" improvements in achievement for students in low-income districts that received more funding. Likewise, in a paper published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics in 2016, researchers C. Kirabo Jackson, Rucker C. Johnson, and Claudia Persico concluded that increases in school funding resulting from lawsuits led to students completing more years of education, and enjoying higher wages and lower rates of poverty in adulthood.
Despite this knowledge, most states continue to rely on local property taxes for school funding, which dramatically disadvantages low-income districts. The EdBuild report also discouragingly notes that a recent popular antidote to school funding issues—lawsuits—is not solving the problem. In fact, some of the states with the worst funding gaps are also states in which advocates have successfully brought aggressive school-funding lawsuits against state-funding formulas.
In New Jersey, for example, where courts forced the state to award more funding to poor, urban districts, there's a whopping $7,300 per-student funding gap between poor white and poor non-white districts. In California and New York, both sites of lengthy school finance litigation, gaps between poor white and non-white districts are approximately $4,000 per student.
Other progressive states are not immune. In Washington, for example, poor non-white districts receive over $8,000 fewer per student than poor white districts.
"One of the things that is really interesting about this particular project is that even states that are known for really doing right by their kids are failing on this front," says Rebecca Sibilia, the chief executive officer of EdBuild. "It's nuts how these numbers came out."
For Sibilia and EdBuild, the findings also cast doubt on race-neutral school-funding-reform strategies that rest on the assumption that simply increasing funding for all low-income districts will solve pervasive racial school-funding gaps.
"Neither the courts nor legislatures have fixed the fundamental school-funding problem for low-income students," the report concludes. "But they're even further from a fix for students in concentrated nonwhite districts, regardless of wealth."
Fixing such a system, EdBuild's researchers conclude, may require "finally commit[ing] to challenging the funding aspect of local control."