An investigative team including more than 20 NPR member-station reporters found that contemporary inequalities in school funding stem from America’s history of racial injustice.
In Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case striking down racial segregation in schools, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that the opportunity of an education “where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” Less than two decades later, in 1973, the Court abandoned this commitment to equal education when it held in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez that there is no constitutional right to equal funding in education.
Today, public schools across America remain racially segregated, and the achievement gap between the wealthiest and poorest students is growing dramatically. In a series of stories examining school funding disparities, reporters set out to explain why, for example, a Chicago school district serving mostly low-income students has only $9794 to spend per child annually (well below the national average of $11,841) while a nearby suburban district spends $28,639 per child.
In Chicago and across the country, because school funding relies heavily on local property taxes, the simple answer is that these disparities stem from differences in property values. And from Chicago to Alabama and beyond, differences in property values can be traced to racially discriminatory housing policies and tax laws.
In Sumter County, Alabama, NPR reported that crumbling public schools whose students are mainly low-income are forced to rely on funding from tax rates on farm and timberland, which is taxed at well below market value. Schools in the rural county lack working bathrooms, reek of mold from leaking roofs, and lack funds to repair broken windows, peeling paint, and cracked floors. Sumter’s public school students are all African American, although about a quarter of the county’s population is white. Many white families send their children to a local private school or to schools outside the area.
Advocates have tried twice in recent years to raise local tax rates, but local voters have the final say, and both measures failed. While some states send money to districts like Sumter that serve many disadvantaged students to even out funding levels, Alabama does not. When families from Sumter filed a lawsuit arguing that Alabama’s school funding system is racially discriminatory, a federal judge wrote an 800-page opinion detailing the historical racial discrimination underlying Alabama’s tax laws, but denied the plaintiffs relief.
NPR reported that at least 31 states spent less money per student in 2014 than in 2008, and during the same period, local funding dropped in 18 states. Schools in low-income districts have cut back drastically; some have even cut a day from the school week. In the wake of the Great Recession, schools serving kids living in poverty have less local money and higher costs than more affluent districts. And reforms in some states meant to direct money to low-income districts not only have been inadequate to level the playing field for underfunded schools, but have actually further enriched affluent districts with state funds.