The college bribery admissions scandal called “Operation Varsity Blues” has exposed the opportunities for corruption afforded wealthy parents so eager to secure admission for their children to elite colleges and universities that they willingly pay tens of thousands of dollars to game a system already skewed in their favor. Falsified Scholastic Aptitude Tests, photo-shopped pictures touting participation in sports that applicants never played, use of a charitable organization to launder bribe money paid to coaches and administrators: the sheer cockiness of the seven-year scheme shocked some and angered many, especially families of color and lower-income families, for whom admission to an elite school is often an intergenerational dream achieved only through sheer grit and access to opportunities that reward hard work.
While an incredulous disdain for traditions like legacy admissions and use of large donations to literally buy a child’s way into elite schools has occupied much of the public discourse, too little attention has been given to the public policies that disadvantage children in low-income communities starting as early as pre-K. Wealthier families able to afford the private cost of making their children’s college applications sing — with money spent on tutors, travel and enrichment like music lessons and technology camps — are often already ahead in their public dollars, too, as they receive more spending per student in the neighborhood schools their children attend. Lower-income families are marginalized years before their children take the PSATs because of inequities in school funding that reduce government per-child investment in their learning.
Educational Disadvantages Appear Long Before College
Melissa Tomlinson is the interim executive director of Badass Teachers Association (BAT) and a special education teacher who has worked in three different New Jersey school districts. Across the U.S., BAT organizes for justice and equity, including equity in funding in public schools. Tomlinson said that not only is the current school funding system based on property values inherently unfair, she identifies nonresidential properties in particular for “not paying what should be their fair share.”
According to a policy brief published by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, “Local governments provided 45 percent of public school funding in 2013–14, and more than 80 percent came from the property tax. The federal government provided less than 9 percent of the total revenue of public schools, and state governments contributed 46 percent.” In New York State, most school districts provided $20,000 to $30,000 in per student spending in 2018, but New York is the state with the greatest income disparity in the nation, and there is a gap in public school funding.
Long Island’s Remsenburg-Speonk School District serves a community where the median household income is about $87,000 and homes sell for an average $1.03 million. In 2018, Remsenburg-Speonk spent $43,861 per student. Meanwhile in Kinderhook, New York, a small town in Columbia County where the median household income is $52,604 and houses sell for closer to $250,000, school spending was $12,757 per student.
In Remsenburg-Speonk School District, less than 30 students took the third- and fourth-grade state math tests in 2018. Proficiency rates were 82 percent for third-graders and 58 percent for fourth-graders. In Kinderhook that same year, closer to 70 students took each of the same grade-level math tests, but proficiency rates were 54 percent for third-graders and 37 percent for fourth-graders.
Emily Stutts is a special education teacher who knows the difference every dollar can make. She currently teaches at Compass Charter School in Brooklyn, New York, but has also taught at public schools in Manhattan and in Pinetown, North Carolina. At Compass, where per-student spending is higher than the school where she taught in North Carolina, Stutts said students benefit from having two teachers in every classroom, better curricular resources, and material resources which, Stutts said, “teachers can use across subjects and particularly for inquiry-based learning that integrates arts, sustainability and student interests.” Stutts said that at Compass, there is “an abundance of books for classrooms and the shared library.” Better funding also pays for better professional development for teachers.
North Carolina ranks lower than New York in both teacher pay and in per-pupil spending, and this affects staffing. According to the Northeast Elementary School website, there is a three-person team of special education teachers serving a total student population of about 500. Meanwhile, at Compass, each classroom has one dedicated general education teacher and one dedicated special education teacher.
Stutts confirmed this, and said that when she taught at Northeast Elementary School, there was only “one teacher in each classroom and fewer special education teachers to support students with disabilities.”
Not only were educators not supported by a credentialed co-teacher in the classroom, they also had to “develop their own resources,” Stutts said, because there was “no coherent curriculum across the grades.”
In 2018, North Carolina ranked 40th in student performance nationwide and, at Northeast Elementary School, where Stutts worked, students scored an average of 37 percent proficient in math and reading on state tests. The entire trajectory of a child’s life can be improved with more funding and so more and richer materials for students to, as Stutts says, “explore and build background knowledge.”
Generous school spending produces measurable outcomes in children’s performance in school and after graduation, especially for children who are economically marginalized. According to a 2016 working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, increased spending in low-income schools results in improved student outcomes “phasing in gradually over the years following the reform. The implied effect of school resources on educational achievement is large.” Children who graduate from better funded schools go on to earn more money and experience less poverty as adults.
Of course, throwing more money at schools does not solve difficult, pre-existing problems that are rooted in a history of disenfranchisement. In communities where inequality has historically been concretized by racist policies, more strategic use of public funds is required to close gaps in student achievement.
In Mississippi, Lowndes County spent $9,430.70 per student in the 2012-13 school year, and in 2014 earned a district rating of B. In Amite County, more money was spent per pupil that same school year — $11,167.28 — but the district rating was D. Schools are complex — and complicated. Data can help make sense of the disparities that persist despite robust numbers in school funding, because data can make plain patterns of systemic bias in schools.
According to ProPublica, in 2015-16, the Lowndes County Schools were 60 percent white and 37 percent African American, but white students were five times more likely to be enrolled in at least one Advanced Placement (AP) course than Black students, so that, district-wide, the AP courses offered in the district were 86 percent white and only 11 percent African American. There was a higher proportion of African American students in the Gifted & Talented (G&T) classes, at 20 percent, but white students still dominated in these G&T classes at 78 percent. In Amite County School District in 2015-16, 82 percent of the district was comprised of African American students, and 17 percent of students were white. One hundred percent of students were eligible to receive a free or reduced lunch, and zero percent of students took at least one AP class. Two percent of students were in a G&T program. Some of these disparities can be explained by looking more closely not at the amount of school funding — but at use of school funding.
A Sage Journal peer-reviewed article examined the funding mechanism for public schools in Mississippi and found horizontal equity (or equal opportunities for learning for comparable students) between districts consistent with the numbers between Lowndes and Amity, but researchers also found weak vertical equity in Mississippi schools that was problematic and persistent. The term “vertical equity” expresses the idea that students who bring certain needs to the classroom require additional resources in those classrooms to meet those needs. The needs students of color carry with them to school each morning often originate in communities that are rooted in a deep and violent history of racial exclusion.
In 1997, the state created the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) to try to achieve equity in school funding based on student resource needs. Although the Sage Mississippi study “shows gains in horizontal equity, it also reveals a weakening of vertical equity. In combination, more funding is available per student overall, but school districts are not receiving sufficient funds to equitably educate children with specific needs, such as living in an area with extremely low socioeconomic conditions. Results of this research strongly suggest Mississippi will continue to languish in academic achievement until MAEP is fully funded on a consistent basis.”
Among the 2015 Sage study recommendations to achieve greater vertical equity were class-size reduction, bilingual education and technology — none of which were funded by Mississippi MAEP as “add-ons” to the baseline standards set by MAEP. A range of disparities in Amite and Lowndes — including punitive discipline, chronic teacher absence and a lack of G&T programs — suggest that add-ons must be targeted to student needs, and more attention to vertical equity in school funding will improve student outcomes.
While there are inequities in both horizontal and vertical school funding within states, the gap between states is also large. For instance, Alabama spent $9,236 per student and ranked 39th in a 2018 US News and World Report ranking of the nation’s pre-K-12 schools, while New Jersey spent $18,402 per student and ranked third. This gap is steadily widening into a gulf. According to an Education Law Center report, in 2018, the lowest-funded state was Idaho, and the highest-funded state was New York. The spending differential between them was $12,400.
What Would a More Just and Equitable Funding System Look Like?
A compassionate system would ensure each child receives the same allotment regardless of neighborhood — or, even more strategically, would spend more per pupil in schools located in economically disadvantaged communities. Additional funding could reduce class size, increase teacher pay, and/or provide enrichment like music lessons and STEM programs that lower-income families cannot afford to direct their private dollars to pay. Instead, our current system of school funding privileges the privileged.
Stutts has a vision for school funding to reduce inequities. “I think that school leaders should be able to develop a budget based on the needs of their schools and submit it to state and/or local leaders. It should be comprehensive in its description of anticipated expenses and justification for how such expenses will enhance student learning,” she said. “Each school’s budget can be audited by local leaders and then shared with the state government who can support schools in meeting all of their budgetary needs, as determined by school leaders. This decentralizes the process of school funding and also promotes an ‘every school gets what it needs’ philosophy — befitting the very definition of equity.”
Tomlinson believes schoolchildren would benefit from a progressive tax system that holds corporations accountable to their communities. She would also like to see more school districts across the U.S. undertake a more thorough study of the costs of educating a child, as costs have risen dramatically in recent years, and the funding to cover those costs has not caught up in many places. “Priority needs to be placed upon reaching that dollar amount,” Tomlinson said. “This is our future that we are funding.”
The U.S. has never been a true meritocracy because American children have never had an equal chance at success. Operation Varsity Blues only highlights the great, gaping space between lower-income and wealthy families. Looking at per-pupil spending in public schools — even in states like Mississippi, where some efforts to close the spending gaps between schools are in place — reveals more discrete issues that require comprehensive, vertical equity in school funding. Current policies in public school funding offer a truth that is centuries old: Children in this country are not equally funded because children in this country are not equally valued.