School Funding Inequity and Overreliance on Local Property Taxes Have Their Roots in the Jim Crow South

In a powerful new article, Legacy of Jim Crow Still Affects Funding for Public Schools, constitutional law professor, Derek Black and Axton Crolley expose the largely unexamined racist past of the kind of school funding inequity we observe today across many of the fifty states.

Derek Black’s Schoolhouse Burning is the best and most complex history of American public education I know.  While the history of our public schools is generally traced back to New England and Horace Mann, Derek Black’s book examines progress toward equity in the South during Reconstruction, its reversal in the Jim Crow era, the corrections attempted during the Civil Rights Movement, and a period of reaction against the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

A year ago, a local school advocacy group here Cleveland, Ohio sponsored a three part ZOOM discussion of the book. The first discussion attracted over a hundred participants from across our state, and most of them came back for the final two evenings. Again and again people commented on how fascinated they were to explore a history they had never fully understood and how poignantly relevant this history is to the problems our schools face today.

In their new article Black and Crolley describe how, after the collapse of Reconstruction, Southern states devised policies to perpetuate inequality: “Some… used ‘racially distinct tax’ policies that reserved separate funds for white and Black schools. Other states… moved school funding responsibility and control from state officials to local communities. Local officials could then ensure inequality without any specific law mandating it… (D)uring the Jim Crow era, localism became the tool to reverse… progress and equality.  States increased reliance on local taxation, gave local white officials discretion over state funds, and constitutionally secured segregation. Some went so far as to craft color-coded funding systems where white taxes funded white schools exclusively… The development of Northern local school systems was historically distinct. Yet even in some Northern states, racial antagonism and concerns over segregation prompted pushes for local decision-making.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education was intended to address this long history of inequality, but there was a serious omission: “Nearly 70 years ago—in its Brown v. Board decision—the Supreme Court framed racial segregation as the cause of educational inequality… That framing rightly focused on segregation’s immediate horror—excluding students from schools based on the color of their skin—but obscured an important fact.  In addition to requiring school segregation, many states also had long segregated school funding. Some had used ‘racially distinct tax’ policies that reserved separate funds for white and Black schools. Other states had moved school funding responsibility and control from state officials to local communities. Local officials could then ensure inequality without any specific law mandating it. Brown’s focus on physical segregation inadvertently left important and less obvious aspects of local funding inequality unchecked.”

Following Brown, subsequent important U.S. Supreme Court decisions perpetuated the problem by emphasizing local control: “Later court decisions did not even recognize that a problem with local funding might exist. To the contrary, they put a preference on local funding over remedying inequality… In the 1973 case of San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the court rejected a challenge to the inequality local school funding causes, reasoning that ‘local control’ over school funding was ‘vital to continued public support of the schools’… A year later, in Milliken v. Bradley, the Supreme Court blocked a desegregation remedy that would have spanned multiple districts…. ‘No single tradition in public education is more deeply rooted than local control over the operation of schools.'”

But school funding matters and unequal funding from school district to school district privileges some children and diminishes opportunity for other children: “A large body of evidence shows ‘money matters.’ Increased spending improves college attendance rates, graduation rates and test scores. But, as a 2018 report revealed, school districts enrolling ‘the most students of color receive about $1,800 or 13% less per student’ than districts serving the fewest students of color… Most school funding gaps have a simple explanation: Public school budgets rely heavily on local property taxes. Communities with low property values can tax themselves at much higher rates than others but still fail to generate anywhere near the same level of resources as other communities.  In fact, in 46 of 50 states, local school funding schemes drive more resources to middle-income students than poor students.”

Black and Crolley conclude: “(D)uring the South’s Reconstruction, Black people and progressive whites saw state control as the solution to inadequate and unequal education. They adopted policies to that effect, many of which were enshrined in state constitutions rather than laws reversible by the legislature… An important step in remedying entrenched school funding inequalities is to first recognize that they are rooted in the history of Jim Crow segregation.  Another potential step is to return to the more centralized approach of Reconstruction—an approach that states during their progressive eras have long recognized. And this step makes good constitutional sense, too. After all, every state constitution places the ultimate obligation to fund and deliver public education on states, not local governments.”

School Segregation, An Ever-Present Problem Across America

In the public mind, misconceptions about residential and school segregation abound. Despite what many believe, the Civil Rights Movement did not end school segregation. And neither is segregation today primarily a problem of the South. The 1974 Supreme Court decision in Milliken v. Bradley, the case set in metropolitan Detroit, undid much of the impact of Brown v. Board of Education by banning busing across school district jurisdictional lines. Whites simply moved to the suburbs, which maintained racial segregation through all sorts of economic measures like zoning out public housing and mandating lot sizes so large that poor people could not afford to build there.

Here is historian Thomas Sugrue from his giant 2008 history, Sweet Land of Liberty: “At the opening of the twenty-first century, the fifteen most segregated metropolitan areas in the United States were in the Northeast and Midwest. A half century after the Supreme Court struck down separate, unequal schools as unconstitutional, racial segregation is still the norm in northern public schools. The five states with the highest rates of school segregation—New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, and California—are all outside the South. Rates of unemployment, underemployment, and poverty reach Third World levels among African Americans in nearly every major northern city….” (p. xix)  “The stark disparities between blacks and whites by every measure—economic attainment, health, education, and employment—are the results.  The high degree of separation by race reinforces and hardens perceptions of racial difference. It creates racially homogeneous public institutions that are geographically defined, limits the access of many minorities to employment opportunities, and leads to racial polarization in politics. Residential segregation has led to a concentration of poverty in urban areas…. (p. 540)

But what about the South, where school districts are more likely to be county-wide and where the courts and the federal Department of Justice enforced the eradication of what was known as de jure segregation—segregation that was explicitly defined by Jim Crow laws?  Two fine articles published this week explore the ongoing resegregation of schools in metropolitan Birmingham, Alabama, where a white enclave is seceding from the Jefferson County school district. Emmanuel Felton’s The Department of Justice is Overseeing the Resegregation of American Schools, published jointly by the Hechinger Report and The Nation, and Nikole Hannah-Jones’ NY Times Magazine report, The Resegregation of Jefferson County: What One Alabama Town’s Attempt to Secede from Its School District Tells Us About the Fragile Progress of Racial Integration in America, examine an effort by white parents to remake Gardendale, Alabama’s public schools into a small, largely white school district.

Hannah Jones explains that Gardendale’s parents were very savvy in the way the proceeded. They formed an advocacy group for secession—Focus—Future of Our Community Utilizing Schools.  Then they waited until the Jefferson County Schools passed a bond issue and rebuilt Gardendale High School into a state of the art facility before they made their move to break away: “In Alabama, any town of more than 5,000 residents can vote to form its own school system, and over they years, members of Focus watched covetously as the neighboring white communities did just that. Gardendale, too, had considered secession for two decades but was deterred when feasibility studies showed that the town of nearly 14,000 could not support an independent school system, partly because the tax base could not generate enough revenue to replace its old and sagging high school. Gardendale lobbied Jefferson County to build a new multimillion-dollar high school, which opened in 2010, within the town’s limits.”

Felton describes the protests of white parents, who claimed in court that their proposed secession from Jefferson County Schools had nothing to do with race: “‘The media has twisted and turned this issue to make everyone think this is about race,’ said Chris Orazine, a white Gardendale dad. ‘The people who live in this community and love this community know that nothing is further from the truth.’… Speaker after speaker complained about how the city had been portrayed. This wasn’t about race, they insisted, but about doing what was best for ‘our’ children.”

Considering that Jefferson County is still under a federal court order to eliminate segregation, how can Gardendale be openly attempting to resegregate?  Hannah-Jones explains: “It was, to a large degree, the geographic organization of Southern states that made court-ordered school desegregation there successful. Unlike the North, where metropolitan areas often include several independent school systems, the South tended toward single, countywide school systems that served cities, suburbs and rural areas.  That meant that judges could order school desegregation across municipal borders and between black and white towns, and thus most white families seeking to avoid desegregation in the South could not simply pick up and move across an invisible line to a white community with a white public-school system… Or, in Alabama, they could leave.  In reaction to the Brown ruling, Alabama passed its school secession law, and in 1959, Mountain Brook, an all-white, wealthy Birmingham suburb, withdrew from the Jefferson County school district.”  Other school districts stayed in the county system until 1969, when a lawsuit brought by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund forced the rezoning of the county schools under court order.

“(W)hat makes the Jefferson County case unique,” writes Felton, “is the federal government’s power to stop it…. That’s because Jefferson County is one of just 176 school districts, out of the 13,500 across the nation, that are still under federal oversight to make sure they’re keeping their promise to fully eliminate all vestiges of Jim Crow.  Yet six decades after Brown, federal judges and officials rarely check to see if districts are obeying their orders to desegregate—and in many cases, schools in districts with a history of discrimination against black children have actually grown more segregated under federal supervision.  And when the judges do step in, they’ve often sided with the districts where school segregation is getting worse.”  Felton describes the Department of Justice as lax in enforcement—“While Obama’s Justice Department racked up wins in dozens of cases, including a high-profile case in Cleveland, Mississippi, officials in many districts with segregated schools report that they hadn’t heard from either the Justice Department or the courts during Obama’s tenure. Many of the 176 outstanding cases have been in a state of suspended animation for years, if not decades.”

In April, federal judge, Madeline Hughes Haikala, an Obama appointee, allowed Gardendale to secede despite that her decision named race as among the reasons white parents had sought a separate district. Felton writes: “In April, she ruled that Gardendale could break away.”  But her decision was slightly nuanced: “Gardendale would start with two elementary schools and would have to work in ‘good faith’ to earn the middle and high schools.”

Hannah-Jones describes Haikala’s requirements for Gardendale to act in “good faith”: “Haikala had, despite her finding of intentional discrimination, decided to give Gardendale ownership over the county’s two elementary schools located in Gardendale for the coming school year. In order to do so, she required the appointment of a black school-board member and for Gardendale to work with the plaintiffs and the Justice Department to come up with a desegregation plan to govern the new district. Gardendale would also either have to relinquish the high school that Jefferson County residents had paid for and that served students from several other communities or repay the county $33 million for the school. After doing that and then operating the two schools ‘in good faith’ for three years, Haikala said she would reconsider their motion for a full separation.”

Hannah-Jones concludes: “What the Gardendale case demonstrates with unusual clarity is that changes in the law have not changed the hearts of many white Americans.”  These articles—Felton’s  and Hannah-Jones’—are worth reading together. They are a sobering update on America’s long struggle with racism and the unresolved and very current issue of school segregation which is always accompanied by educational inequity. Quality education is supposed to be a right for all of our children, but we are a long way from having achieved justice.