Public education in the United States is profoundly broken. Which zipcode a child lives in ultimately determines the quality of their education, as funding for schools is dictated by the property taxes of a given district.
This has been the system since the 1600s when Massachusetts set up the colonies’ first public school. At that time, small communities were pooling resources, and one’s contribution to the pool would directly reflect their wealth. It seemed fair at the time, but fast forward 375 years, and that system (mostly unchanged) is now utterly dysfunctional.
Wealth disparity is one of the most pressing issues of our time and it comes into jaw-dropping clarity when we look at our schools. Our country built its foundation on slavery, so wealth inequality continues to be a prominent symptom of our unjust history.
To put it into context, the top 5% of earners in the US own 60% of the wealth. Moreso, the wealthiest three people in the nation own more than the bottom 50% of the entire nation (that’s 162 million people). So what happens when our schools reflect that sort of disparity?
Due to incessant institutional racism in our governing bodies, policies like redlining and segregation have created a pitfall of inequality in our schools.
After WWII, white flight destroyed countless cities. White folks moved to newly developed suburbs, while minority families were primarily confined to cities. Even when they attempted to purchase homes in predominantly affluent areas, banks would not approve their mortgage loans or people would choose not to sell to them. Redlined districts were principally Black neighborhoods and considered high risk, so Black folks couldn’t obtain loans to buy homes in their communities. This inability to build familial wealth with property forced families of color to stay in poor neighborhoods as renters. It bound their children to schools that were poorly funded, with a faltering tax base.
The 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education attempted to re-mediate this by ending school segregation. Busing children to different areas of town to integrate students was controversial, but worked for a time… in some places. But district lines are district lines, and much of them are purposely drawn to separate wealthy areas from less prosperous communities. In doing so, the wealthier neighborhoods commit more funding to their schools instead of leveling the playing field by distributing the wealth across less affluent districts, lifting up students with less financial support.
There have been hundreds of court cases challenging state and federal laws around education equality and equity. It is considered a state issue, and while some states have developed more equitable systems, the vast majority have not. When wealth is concentrated into smaller and smaller areas, fewer schools have access to the necessary funding to educate the next generation of Americans. As wealth disparity deepens, more children have fewer opportunities for a quality education, which perpetuates that disparity even further. But these aren’t regional issues as much as the Supreme Court Justices defer back to the states.
It’s a national problem with American students falling well behind our European and Asian counterparts.
The obvious answer to these problems is to put more money into our school systems… but how? The decision of how and where funds are spent will be challenged by those who are already comfortable with the status quo. These parents typically have more free time than a single parent working two or three jobs to pay the rent in more economically challenged areas.
Because the Constitution doesn’t claim that equal education is an American right, the ability to nationalize our education funding will likely never happen.
At best, funding would be equalized over a state’s districts, or potentially with state coalitions within geographic regions. However, this still seems unfair when you look at where the wealth is centered in our nation.
The way capitalism often works is that it rewards those who are already on top and makes it exponentially more challenging to succeed if you’re not born into a wealthy zip code. If we are to remain competitive on the international stage, if we are to level the racial playing field in America, we have to make serious reforms to our public education system. Perhaps that means committing more funds per district in the broken system that we currently have, or, more likely, implementing significant reform across the board (aka: abolishing the system completely and creating a new one that supports, educates, and encourages every student).
Ann Lewis is an artist, activist, and writer based in Detroit. Her artwork reflects upon social and environmental justice issues.