As Low-Income, Minority Schools See Fewer Resources, Civil Rights Commission Calls on Congress to Act

Students wear winter coats and hats during school in Baltimore in December. (Photo credit: twitter.com/ComedianKhairy)

Congress should provide incentives to states to change school funding formulas that often shortchange districts serving the most low-income and minority students, according to a report released Thursday by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. As poverty becomes increasingly concentrated, the report notes, education funding disparities often leave schools ill-equipped to provide students an adequate education.

The report, Commission Chair Catherine Lhamon said, is “distressingly topical” as public outrage mounts in Baltimore, where schools closed last week after 60 buildings reported heating problems “after years of insufficient funding.” Before the closures, students were attending classes wearing coats, gloves, and hats. Beyond Baltimore, the report notes, funding inequities leave cash-strapped schools without adequate access to effective teachers and technology. Often, these schools fall short on the most basic classroom supplies like textbooks, desks — and even toilet paper.

“The reality is that in any week, in any year when school is in session, the conditions in which we ask students to learn are for some students appalling and inequitable,” said Lhamon, who served as the Education Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights under then-President Barack Obama. “Our report, approved by a majority of the commission, details that across the nation, public schools generally struggle to provide quality education on equal terms because they lack sufficient financial resources.”

On average, school districts in the U.S. spend roughly $11,000 per pupil each year, with an overwhelming majority of that money derived from local tax dollars, a figure that fluctuates based on wealth. As a result, the report notes, the country’s poorest districts receive an average of $1,200 less per pupil than their wealthiest counterparts. Similarly, districts with the most students of color receive about $2,000 less per pupil than the whitest schools. And because students often live in segregated neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty, students often face what the commission calls “double segregation.”

The education finance systems in most states, Lhamon said, do not take into account the actual costs associated with providing a high-quality education. A new National Center for Education Statistics report shows that public education expenditures ticked upward by $18 billion during the 2014–15 school year, though state spending on schools continues to vary widely between states. New York spent the most, at $20,744 per pupil, while Utah spent the least, at $6,751 per pupil.

Although the federal government provides only a fraction of schools’ total education dollars, the report called on Congress to take “bold action” to ensure local and state governments provide resources equitably. Lawmakers should declare that students have a federal right to an education, increase federal education funding in a way that promotes equity, and promote “the collection, monitoring, and evaluation of school spending data to determine how funds are most effectively spent to promote positive student outcomes.”

Given that school funding inequities have long been a topic of concern and debate in education circles, Lhamon acknowledged that the recommendations face an uphill battle under the Trump administration, which has proposed cutting the federal education budget.

“It is our hope that issuing this report will help Congress see its way to both enact a law that makes clear that education is a federal right and to provide grant funding sufficient to materially change the circumstances of schooling for students in this country,” she said. “We recognize that we are reporting on a topic that we ourselves have reported on many times, as well as others, and that topic is no less urgent today than it has been at any time in the 60-year life of this Commission.”

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