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Money Doesn’t Matter? This Article Underscores How Poor Funding for Public Education Adds to Racial Inequality

February 19, 2021 Leave a comment

One of the most maddening arguments I read about is how money doesn’t matter when it comes to schooling… year as this Vox article by Anna North illustrates, money DOES matter, especially the money needed to upgrade school facilities and provide the necessities for classroom instruction. Here’s the description of the Bronx High school Leanne Nunes attended: 

The walls at the high school Leanne Nunes attended in the Bronx were painted a color she likes to call “penitentiary beige.”

The cafeteria, located in the basement, had no windows. About half of her classrooms didn’t have windows, either. “It felt kind of jail-like,” Nunes, now a first-year student at Howard University, told Vox. “It felt like the building itself was trying to keep you in.”

And the lack of resources went beyond the physical space. Laptops for students were often old or broken. Students struggled to get access to the classes they wanted. For example, the school could only afford to offer art or music in a single year, not both. “You’d have to pick,” Nunes said, “and by ‘you’d have to pick,’ I mean the school made the decision for you.”

Looking back, she said, “there were a lot of opportunities where I think young people could have been learning or engaging with content better, but they didn’t really have the chance to.”

I doubt that any suburban district that borders the Bronx has a windowless cafeteria, windowless classrooms, outdated laptops, or forced choices between art and music. And lest you think this is a NYC problem, here’s some news for you:

Nationwide, majority-nonwhite districts get $23 billion less in funding every year than majority-white districts, despite having the same number of students. That gap translates to a lower-quality education for many Black students and other students of color — which, in turn, perpetuates and widens America’s racial inequities. “All of the implications of not being able to get an education — these are linked to people’s ability to support themselves, to support their families, to have healthy communities,” Verna Williams, the dean of the University of Cincinnati College of Law, who has studied reparations for educational segregation, told Vox.

To emphasize the scale of that disparity, let me write it differently: majority white districts get $23,000,000,000 more EVERY YEAR than majority black districts. If we ever hope to provide an equal opportunity for students of color and students raised in poverty, we cannot continue what we are doing now. And one thing we need to do in addition to providing more funding for schools serving minority students is to have a national attitude adjustment. 

“The idea that there’s good schools and bad schools and that is determined by the students within them is harmful and not true,” Nunes, now the executive college director at the educational equity organization IntegrateNYC, told Vox. “There are no good schools and bad schools. There’s schools that currently have and historically have had what they need to succeed, and schools that don’t.

If 20 years of standardized tests haven’t proven Ms. Nunes’ point about this, we have no hope of ever learning from our experience.  And we should also be disabused of the notion that money doesn’t matter, In addition to the deplorable conditions of schools in minority neighborhoods and communities, there is an equally deplorable lack of human resources: 

Less money means, quite simply, less of everything for Black students and the schools they attend. That includes fewer experienced teachers: Schools with high percentages of Black and Latinx students have nearly twice as many first-year teachers as schools with low Black and Latinx enrollment, according to the New York Times.

It includes professionals like school nurses and counselors — in one recent survey, Black students were less likely than white students to say they could reach out to a teacher or counselor at school if they needed help with a mental health issue. And it includes electives, advanced classes, and other features of a well-rounded curriculum; for example, just a third of schools with high Black and Latinx enrollment offer calculus, according to the Times. “So many resources that we see in wealthy schools are a product of the fact that those schools are in wealthy districts,” Boddie told Vox.

I’ve been writing this blog for nearly ten years and I have written variations of this post for that entire time… probably 20-25 times per year. These paragraphs offer some ways this COULD be addressed at the federal level: 

It’s past time for policymakers at the highest levels of government to send another message, advocates say: that all children deserve a safe, high-quality education. One way to send that message loud and clear is with money.

The federal government can help equalize school funding by giving grants to underfunded schools, Khalilah Harris, acting vice president for K-12 education policy at the Center for American Progres said. One proposal developed by the Center for American Progress, called Public Education Opportunity Grants, would have the government provide about $63 billion per year — enough for about $12,000 per student — to the 25 percent of districts with the highest poverty rate in each state. States with fewer resources overall, as measured by gross state product, would get extra money to help equalize funding across states.

School districts would be required to use the money specifically to improve access to education for historically underserved groups, including Black or Indigenous students and other students of color, students with disabilities, and students from low-income families. And they’d be required to set improvement targets for student outcomes and resource equity, and report on their progress toward meeting them. For students attending the most impoverished schools, it’s crucial to “account for all the ways their communities have been impacted so that those schools aren’t suffering because of the tax base,” Harris said.

The Vox article understands that this problem cannot be solved solely at the federal level, and acknowledges that the Federal fix is far easier to achieve than the state and local one. 

While grants from the federal government can begin to remedy some of the inequities of school funding in America, to finish the job, states and local districts will need to change the way they allocate funds — moving away from formulas based on property tax that perpetuate the harms of housing segregation.

This is, in many ways, a harder problem than distributing federal funding, because it requires change from countless state and local governments all around the country. In every state, “you’re going to have a different set of dynamics, you’re going to have a different set of players,” Walker said. Some of those players are wealthy parents who are sure to push back against efforts to alter a system that benefits them — “people who buy big, expensive houses and that’s one of the ways they invest in their schools,” as Walker puts it.

The article concludes with these two paragraphs… underscoring the soul searching that will be required to provide equity… should searching that could begin in an anodyne fashion by examining the metrics we currently use, for if standardized test scores are the ultimate metric, we will continue to buy into the current paradigm that there are “Good Schools” and “Bad Schools”… and forget Leanne Nunes’ cogent observation: “There are no good schools and bad schools. There’s schools that currently have and historically have had what they need to succeed, and schools that don’t.

Educational equity will require not just money but a deep examination of how Americans view young people, and how the country measures value and success, Nunes said. “Asking these questions of ourselves and each other and having these conversations is something that needs to happen,” she said.

“We can’t couch racial justice issues only in criminal justice and housing, or helping people to be entrepreneurs,” Harris said. “Education undergirds every part of our lives in this country.”

What If the War on Drugs Had Been a War on Inequality?

January 3, 2021 Comments off

Whenever a I read an article like Sarah Lahm’s recent Common Dreams essay on how our economic policy influenced the racism that exists today, I wonder how things might have played out had our nation continued supporting the kinds of policies Jimmy Carter advocated over those of Ronald Reagan?

Ms. Lahm uses the life of George Floyd to indirectly pose this question. She offers this terse description of the world George Floyd entered as a child:

Floyd was raised by a single mother in a racially and economically isolated public-housing development, where he and his siblings often did not have enough to eat. The family of six was crammed together with too few beds, yet Floyd’s mother was reportedly a generous soul who took in other kids in need.

Floyd was born in 1973 and came of age in the 1980s. Ronald Reagan’s presidency shaped the backdrop of his formative years, when austerity measures and trickle-down economics were bumping up against the gross excesses of Wall Street and the glorification of the yuppie lifestyle.

What if, instead of treating addiction as a moral failure that required the writing of new laws and the incarceration of those who violated the laws the government policy it treated addiction as the disease it is? What if, instead of directing billions to police and prisons the Federal, state, and local funds were directed to support the well-being of children. Maybe a “generous soul” like Floyd’s mother would have been paid to care for kids in need in a house that would provide them each with their own bedroom. Maybe the government could have provided Mrs. Floyd with sufficient funds to buy food and clothing for the children under her care and paid for any medical and dental bills they required. Maybe the government could identify the many “generous souls” who reside in impoverished communities across the country and offer them support, helping them create a nurturing environment that could offer the children under their care the well-being that they lack through no fault of their own.

Instead of intervening when it would make the most difference, though, we chose to “declare war” on the misconduct that manifests on the back end. When children and young adults are desperate for well-being and can only find it when they use drugs and when the use of those drugs is seen as a defiance of law and order, money gets spent on policing and incarcerating misbehavior… and we spend billions paying to segregate those who suffer from the disease of addiction. We provide them with food, clothing, and shelter and adult supervision at a cost that is daunting but unquestioned. Instead of developing an infrastructure to help “generous souls” like George Floyd’s mom, we set up  an infrastructure to isolate young men and women who suffer from a disease from the rest of our society… and the economic conditions that led to the disease remain in place forever.

David Brooks Assessment of How to Change People’s Minds About Race is Spot On: Education DOESN’T Work; Increased Contact DOES

January 2, 2021 4 comments

As readers of this blog know, I have long believed that housing patterns and the zoning laws that create those housing patterns are the underlying cause of the socio-economic and racial divides in our country. If white children never come in contact with people of color their impressions about that group will be based on what they hear at the dining room table, what they see on television, what they read on line, and what they hear from their classmates in school. Similarly, if children raised in affluence never come in contact with those who are economically disadvantaged their impressions about that group will be based on what they hear at the dining room table, what they see on television, what they read on line, and what they hear from their classmates in school. And, when children are raised in white and affluent neighborhoods and communities there is no reason for them to ever cross paths with children of color or less affluent children.

Those of us who have succeeded in making a good living by virtue of our own good fortune and hard work want to believe our country is a pure meritocracy; that it is still possible for any children of color and any child raised in poverty who applies themselves can “succeed” through grit and pluck; and many heartwarming stories reinforce that notion.

Those of us who have succeeded in making a good living by virtue of our own good fortune and hard work also want to believe believe that every voter is rational and seeks what is best for our nation as a whole. We like to believe that voters are open-minded and will rely on facts, data, and their own understanding of how policies impact their lives and the well-being of the nation.

And so, those of us who have succeeded in making a good living by virtue of our own good fortune and hard work continue to believe in the narrative that it is possible to change the minds of others by presenting reams of facts and figures and letting the facts speak for themselves. If enough people examine enough data they will be persuaded to endorse policies that will improve their well-being and the well-being of their neighbors. The well-educated and well informed voter, then, will drive social change.

But, as David Brooks reports in his column written on December 31, 2020, a column looking back on 2020, it doesn’t really work that way.

So many of our hopes are based on the idea that the key to change is education. We can teach each other to be more informed and make better decisions. We can study social injustices and change our behavior to fight them.

But this was the year that showed that our models for how we change minds or change behavior are deeply flawed.

It turns out that if you tell someone their facts are wrong, you don’t usually win them over; you just entrench false belief.

Much of Brooks’ column describes how racial diversity training, designed to make employees aware of how their conduct reinforces racism, does just the opposite. Once an employee has received the training they can become complacent, “…thinking that because they went through the program they’ve solved the problem“. Worse, in some cases the training itself activates latent resentment, making those who hold biases feel like they are being singled out and making independent minded employees feel that they are being told what to think. Instead of instigating social change through education, Mr. Brooks– much to my surprise– suggests changes to the way society is set up, He concludes his column with this sobering analysis:

The superficial way to change minds and behavior doesn’t seem to work, to bridge either racial, partisan or class lines. Real change seems to involve putting bodies from different groups in the same room, on the same team and in the same neighborhood. That’s national service programs. That’s residential integration programs across all lines of difference. That’s workplace diversity, equity and inclusion — permanent physical integration, not training.

This points to a more fundamental vision of social change, but it is a hard-won lesson from a bitterly divisive year.

I think Mr. Brooks stops his column here because he realizes that changes of this kind can only be affected by (gasp) an active and effective federal government. An unfettered “marketplace economy”– one that is completely free of  government regulation— will not compel a change in housing patterns or employment practices and a weak central government cannot mandate community service in the name of “putting bodies from different groups in the same room”.  Maybe in his next column Mr. Brooks will advocate for such an active and strong federal government… but only if the facts he presents lead him to that inevitable conclusion.