Education Law Center and Southern Poverty Law Center Decry Inadequate and Inequitable School Funding Across Southern States

In his masterful book Schoolhouse Burning, published in 2020, Derek Black traces the history of racial injustice in America’s public schools—through Jim Crow and the efforts more recently to undermine the impact of Brown v. Board of Education.  He concludes by examining two parallel trends today across the Southern states: lagging public school funding and growing school privatization:

“The Northeast, Upper Midwest, and Northwest—the parts of America with the fewest racial minorities—have only suffered modest privatization. Their public school systems for the most part do not face major privatization threats… But the Southeast—the Confederacy’s old stronghold—tells the exact opposite story: (there are) large percentages of African American students and… their public schools are facing deep privatization forces… Public school funding, or the lack thereof, is the flipside of this privatization movement…  The deepest and most consistent school funding gaps are in the Southeast and Southwest, with far smaller funding gaps in the Upper Midwest and Northeast.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 239-242)

This week the Education Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center together released Inequity in School Funding: Southern States Must Prioritize Fair Public School Spending, a school finance brief documenting the continuation in 2021 of the trends to which Derek Black called our attention. The brief examines the insufficiency and inequity of public school funding in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas.

“A state’s funding level is measured by analyzing the combined state and local revenues provided through each state’s school finance formula… Even after adjusting for regional cost differences, all eight Southern states score in the bottom third of states nationwide, and four are in the bottom 10… Florida and Mississippi, ranking 45th and 46th, have per-pupil levels that are more than $4,000 below the national average ($15,114).”

“The hallmark of a fair school funding system is that it delivers more funding to educate students in high-poverty districts.” The eight states profiled in the brief persist in refusing to distribute state funding equitably to meet the additional needs in school districts with concentrations of “low-income students, students of color, English learners, students with disabilities and students facing homelessness, trauma and other challenges.” “Alabama, Florida and Texas have regressive funding, with high-poverty districts, on average, receiving less per-pupil funding than low poverty districts. Florida and Alabama both have an average funding disadvantage of 12% in high-poverty districts… In Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee there is no clear variation in funding relative to student poverty.”

The brief’s authors continue: “Fair school funding has particular significance in the South because the historical context of racial segregation and resistance to integration still permeates education politics and policymaking. The segregation academies designed to evade school integration, which flourished in the post-Brown v. Board of Education era, have left an undeniable legacy. Public schools today enroll a disproportionate number of Black and Latinx students, while white students are overrepresented in private schools. As Southern states dramatically increase funding for voucher programs, public schools remain drastically underfunded… The poverty rate among Black and Latinx families in the South is double that of white families, meaning they are more likely to bear the brunt of inequitable school funding.”

The brief’s authors are not optimistic.  They worry about barriers to addressing the needs of Southern states’ children in public schools: “Many Southern states are facing the expansion of school voucher programs that divert scarce public funds to unaccountable and discriminatory private institutions.”

Simultaneously, ugly politics are undermining the political will to do something about the injustice: “(P)olitical leaders are using divisive issues to undermine the viability of public schools (e.g., imposing bans on mask mandates and inclusive, culturally responsive curricula).  Such tactics should be called out for what they are: mere distractions that seek to undermine the critical role public schools play in shaping the economic and social health of the region.”

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