Tuesday, May 24, 2016

How the Supreme Court Upheld Education Funding Inequity

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Power in Numbers - Arbitrary Funding

How the Supreme Court Upheld Education Funding Inequity

In this third installment of Power in Numbers, EdBuild finds that similar school districts across the country spend radically different amounts on their students, even when differences in local costs are taken into account, revealing systemic and unjustifiable inequities in the way we fund our schools.

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In the late 1960’s, parents from Edgewood, an urban school district within the city of San Antonio, brought suit against the state and seven school districts, claiming that the Texas system of funding schools was unconstitutional. Their main claim was that the state’s reliance on local property taxes to fund schools favored more affluent communities, giving them more resources for their schools. While they recognized the state’s attempt to partially compensate for the inequalities with state funding, they argued that since low-income districts still ended up with less money, they were substantially disadvantaged, and the system should be struck down as a violation of the United States Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.
The case, San Antonio v. Rodriguez, made it to the Supreme Court, and in 1973, the Court ruled that Texas' education finance system did not violate the U.S. Constitution. It based its ruling on two tenets—first, that low-income communities are not a protected class, unlike racial or religious minorities, and second, that education is not a fundamental right under the United States Constitution. Without these two protections, as long as a state's funding scheme has a “legitimate” or “rational basis,” the U.S. Supreme Court could not strike it down, even if it clearly disadvantaged struggling communities[1].
With its ruling in San Antonio, the Supreme Court forfeited any responsibility to level the playing field for poor students, and left their fates to 51 state definitions of “equity” and “opportunity”. Today, there are no federal criteria for what constitutes an education, leaving each state to set its own standards and requirements. In some states, education systems must be “thorough and efficient.” In others, they must be “uniform and general.” Still others expect schools to prepare each child to participate in democracy. These different standards create a system in which your home state and community dictate the level of education to which you are entitled.
The map below shows just what that means. It shows the amount by which school funding in every school district in America differs from $11,866, the average per-pupil revenue in all districts in the nation. These numbers are adjusted for local variations in the cost of living, so they are directly comparable across states and across the country. As you can see at a glance, there is huge variation in the resources that each district has available for their students - the poorest districts, in fact, receive 21% less funding than the wealthiest ones do.
School Districts, Difference from National Average
As Justice Marshall predicted in his dissent to the San Antonio v Rodriguez ruling, while school funding systems might discriminate between districts rather than students, "the impact of that discrimination falls directly upon the children whose educational opportunity is dependent upon where they happen to live." To be sure, we at EdBuild believe that there should be differences in the amount of money spent on education in different communities, but this variation should be based on levels of student need, not on the happenstance of location. Education spending today is wildly inconsistent, even between districts serving similar student populations.
In the data presented below, we highlight the 200 largest districts (based on their student enrollment) to reveal large and systemic inequities in the way we fund schools across the country[2]. We have sorted these districts into fourteen peer groups based on their demographics and budget constraints so that it’s easy to compare spending levels in similar districts. Just like the variation among state education budgets, the disparities in the budgets of comparable school districts demonstrates the arbitrariness of education funding in America. As we see again and again in districts around the country, education funding levels are determined by local wealth and state will—not by student need or any legitimate education considerations. 
Peer Group 2, for instance, consists of eight school districts, all middle-income with more than 50,000 students and very high rates of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch under the National School Lunch program. They educate some of the highest-need students in the country, and yet all have revenues well below the EdBuild | Arbitrary:

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