Jim Crow legacy still affects public school funding
Almost 70 years ago – in its Brown v. Board of 1954 – the Supreme Court defined racial segregation as the cause of educational inequality. He did not, however, take issue with efforts by states to ensure unequal funding for black schools.
Prior to Brown, Southern states used segregation to signify and concretely reinforce second-class citizenship for black people in the United States. Brown’s court held that segregation was inherently unequal. Even if the schools were “equalized” on all “tangible factors”, segregation remained a problem and physical integration was the remedy, the Court found.
This framing rightly focused on the immediate horror of segregation – the exclusion of students from schools because of the color of their skin – but obscured an important fact. In addition to requiring school segregation, many states also long had segregated school funding. Some had used “racially separate tax” policies that earmarked separate funds for white and black schools. Other states had transferred the responsibility and control of school funding from state officials to local communities. Local officials could then guarantee inequality without any specific law requiring it.
Brown’s focus on physical segregation inadvertently left important and less obvious aspects of local funding inequality unchecked. These practices still result in underfunding in majority poor and minority schools. Since 2021, through the Center for Constitutional Law at the University of South Carolina Law School, we have been documenting the historical connection between segregation and state reliance on local school funding. In our view, until states stop relying so heavily on local school funding, the equal educational opportunity that Brown first sought will remain out of reach for K-12 students. year in the 21st century.
What’s wrong with local funding
A great deal of evidence shows that “money matters”.
Increased spending improves college attendance rates, graduation rates, and test scores. But, as a 2018 report found, school districts that enroll “the most students of color receive about $1,800, or 13% less per student” than districts serving the fewest students of color. .
More recent analysis further demonstrated that school funding cuts during the Great Recession disproportionately affected black students and exacerbated achievement gaps.
Most school funding gaps have a simple explanation: public school budgets are heavily dependent on local property taxes. Communities with low land values can tax at much higher rates than others, but still fail to generate the same level of resources as other communities.
In fact, in 46 out of 50 states, local school funding programs generate more resources for middle-income students than for poor students. The local funding gap between districts serving mostly middle-income students and poor students in New Jersey, for example, is $3,460 per student. While state and federal programs often send additional funds to poor students, they are insufficient to fully meet the additional needs of low-income students.
Missed opportunities to address local financing
In Brown v. Board, the court glossed over the history of school segregation and its nuances. The court said it was impossible to “go back to 1868”, when the nation passed the Fourteenth Amendment, or “even to 1896”, when the court authorized segregation. Instead, he said “we must view public education in light of its full development and present place in American life across the nation.”
This pivot allowed the court to tackle segregation on a slate cleaned of the mess of history. But it also deprived the court of any serious consideration of the complex and racist local school funding system in the Southern states.
Subsequent court rulings have not even acknowledged that a local funding problem may exist. On the contrary, they favor local financing rather than the correction of inequalities. In the 1973 case of San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the court dismissed a challenge to causes of unequal local school funding, finding that “local control” over school funding was “essential to the continued public support of schools” and “of paramount also educational.
A year later, in Milliken v. Bradley, the Supreme Court blocked a desegregation appeal that would have covered multiple districts. Finances and local autonomy were at the heart of the court’s logic. He wrote, “No tradition in public education is more deeply rooted than local control over the operation of schools.” In his view, desegregation between districts would destroy this tradition and create a host of problems regarding the funding of local schools.
Of course, these decisions did not prevent desegregation within individual districts. But the Court said the desegregation and school funding inequality that occurs between school districts — as opposed to within school districts — is largely beyond the reach of the federal judiciary.
Funding, control and segregation
Our research reveals that during the rebuilding of the South, progressive blacks and whites saw state control as the solution to inadequate and unequal education. They have enacted policies to this effect, many of which have been enshrined in state constitutions rather than in laws reversible by the legislature.
Local communities were certainly important to school implementation, but states like Texas and Virginia centralized school administration, school funding, and a variety of other policies. Some states, like South Carolina, have brought the core issue of physical segregation under state control and outright banned it.
Then, during the Jim Crow era, localism became the tool to reverse that progress and equality. States increased their reliance on local taxation, gave local white officials discretion over public funds, and constitutionally guaranteed segregation. Some went so far as to develop color-coded funding systems where white taxes exclusively funded white schools.
Others, like South Carolina, achieved the same goal by letting taxpayers choose which of the separate schools would receive their funds. Southern leaders have openly tied local financing and control to the “wisdom” of segregation.
The development of local northern school systems was historically distinct. Yet even in some northern states, racial antagonisms and concerns about segregation have driven local decision-making. More generally, some northern states have followed a similar trajectory as southern states: Illinois, for example, imposed a statewide property tax for white education with additional local funding before the civil war. Ironically, however, it eventually became one of the states most dependent on local funding.
Towards a fairer system
While Brown v. Board declared school segregation itself unconstitutional, other related aspects of segregated schools – particularly the decentralization of school funding – continued unchecked after this. The longer these aspects lasted, the more the courts accepted them as a neutral aspect of the provision of public education.
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An important step in addressing entrenched school funding inequities 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 to reconstruction – an approach that states during their progressive eras have long recognized. And this step also makes good constitutional sense. After all, every state constitution places the ultimate obligation to fund and deliver public education on states, not local governments.
Derek W. Black is a professor of law and Axton Crolley is a constitutional law scholar at the University of South Carolina.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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