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.”