Exposing the Real Guilty Party: School Funding and Racial Disparities

Progressive and mainstream media websites in the last few weeks have been abuzz with news of an African American mother in Ohio who was arrested, charged, sentenced to jail time and subject to a $30,500 fine for falsifying records to send her child to a high quality white school outside of her district, rather than the Black one to which her child was assigned. This story represents the pinnacle of racism in a society where, for minorities, sending your child to a school to which he or she might be able to gain access to a quality education is a crime.

We must look at the reason why this brave mother risked jail time to send her child to a white (read: better) school? How is it in America, parents who only want the best for their children have to lie about their address so that their children have a shot at the American dream? And why is no one talking about the fundamental reasons for educational inequality – the school funding structure that overtly privileges white children from wealthy families. This insidious racism masks inequality behind white picket fences, immaculately trimmed hedges and pristine landscaping. This façade allows us to ignore the fact that schools are funded based on the values of the homes surrounding them. No other nation in the world does this, and to such deleterious effect.

What this story has finally done is highlight the central cause of racial disparities in test scores and graduation rates – school funding, the one factor that seems to go ignored in much of the debate regarding “what’s wrong with our nation’s schools.” For the last six months, since the release of the Davis Guggenheim’s documentary, Waiting for Superman, TV, radio, and print news have interrogated the reasons for low minority performance. But only very rarely, have the ways in which we fund our nation’s schools mentioned. Instead, blame is usually placed on the usual suspects, those with the least power within the system – teachers , parents, and the children themselves. The racist school system, the one that has consigned minority students to inferior education since the moment African slaves arrived on America’s shores, is ignored. Many either believe that educational inequality was wiped with the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, or have forgotten that schools were shuttered in many states so that white children could attend “private” (though often covertly state-funded) schools and that Northern schools were not legally desegregated until the late 1960s and early 1970s. And although few white adults have children with friends of different races, we somehow fail to address the fact that our schools are now more segregated than before Brown and during apartheid South Africa.

The reason for this is a confluence of historical and contemporary factors, all of which are intricately woven into a tapestry of place-based racism that has left minority children isolated in urban areas with schools receiving a fraction of the money their peers receive in white areas. The racist policies of redlining and urban renewal trapped many African American in urban areas while restrictive covenants and sundown towns kept them out of suburbs, except of course to work for whites. Displaced into crowded ghettos and housing projects, Blacks lived in areas condemned simply for the color of the residents, rather than the quality of the homes (though this too was often inferior, and cost more than similar apartments in white areas). Those who did own their homes did so in these areas were homes were valued lower because of the “character” (read: color) of the neighborhood. Unable to buy homes in white neighborhoods, these towns have remained white, with high property values, resulting in much more funds available for the schools. In urban areas, where most people rent, values of homes are lower, and businesses receive tax cuts, the revenue simply does not exist to provide children with the same amount of money as their suburban counterparts. As a result, minority children in urban districts often receive a fraction of what white students in suburbs wear.

And these funding differences have real effects on students’ education and educational attainment, Minority students have more inexperienced teachers, older schools, less technology, more crowded classrooms, less playground space, and fewer basic resources such as paper, pencils, and books than white children. It was these resources that Ms. Kelley Williams-Bolar sought when she enrolled her child in a white school. Though recently released because her case was dismissed, she must spend three years on probation. More importantly, this episode raises the simple question of why, in the United States of America, minority parents must risk jail time and fines by falsifying student addresses to allow their children access to the same high quality education white children receive automatically. And why, when we discuss schools, do we blame everyone and everything but the inequalities that force minority parents to do this if they want their children to be well educated?