American public schools receive most of their funding from state and local governments. The federal government provides minimal performance oversight and funding through policies like the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). While these policies help in cases of extreme inequities in educational resources, they do not address more moderate cases of inequity, leading to many Black Americans receiving an inferior education. Future policies should incorporate a more equitable funding structure by distributing funds more equally through federal, state, and county-level governments instead of federal, state, and municipality-level governments. This would eliminate some of the financial disadvantages that predominantly Black schools face, a vital step in bringing the quality of education for Black Americans up to par with their white counterparts.
ESEA, ESSA, and the public education funding structure
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 was one of the policies that allowed the federal government to contribute funding for the public education system. The act was intended to bridge the gap between the Constitutional right to equal education for every American and education being under the state’s purview. ESEA has had many reauthorizations for its commitment to civil rights in education, including the No Child Left Behind Act and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). These policies endeavor to provide all American students with equal education opportunities through federal oversight for education standards and federal funding programs. However, while ESEA and its subsequent reauthorizations mandate some federal government involvement in public education, its role is still relatively small compared to more local levels of government. States and localities provide the majority of funding for American schools; states contribute approximately 45.6 percent, local-level governments contribute around 37.1 percent, and the federal government contributes around 8.3 percent of education funding,with the remainder coming from private sources.
Impacts of ESEA and ESSA on Black American students
ESEA and ESSA have had some limited success in reducing funding inequities. Notably, ESEA was groundbreaking in allowing the federal government to provide aid to public schools and overcame the general fear of federal interference in an area that was primarily a states’ responsibility. It set the stage for future federal intervention to help Black students by providing textbooks, library books, and scholarships to low-income students. It was also instrumental in bringing awareness to and measuring the inequities that Black students faced.
While ESEA and its subsequent reauthorizations had some positive effects, they have not fully bridged the racial gap in educational achievement, partially because of funding disparities. Predominantly white school districts receive $23 billion more in funding than majority non-white school districts do. Compared to schools where over 90 percent of students are white, schools with over 90 percent students of color spend an average of $733 less per student for every academic year. These numbers compound over the years; over their primary and secondary years of education, students of color receive nearly $8,800 less for their education than their white counterparts. This creates an unequal learning environment and can significantly disadvantage the students receiving less investment in their education.
Predominantly Black schools receive so little funding primarily because a significant portion of education funding comes from the property taxes that municipal level governments levy and not from broader geographical tax bases. African American students are more likely to be attending schools in more low-income municipalities compared to their white counterparts. These lower-income municipalities cannot send as much money to their school districts, creating disparities in education. For example, Paterson, New Jersey, has not been able to afford enough foreign language courses for its high school students. At the same time, Princeton, New Jersey, starts its foreign language curriculum in elementary school. Paterson has a significantly higher proportion of Black students compared to Princeton and is an example of how communities with more Black students are unable to adequately fund an equal education for its students. Many other states also face similar issues in providing equitable education due to the high reliance on local-level governments for funding.
Low funding levels are evident in the quality and quantity of vital faculty members in these schools. Districts with less funding offer lower salaries to teachers, reducing their ability to recruit and retain high-caliber teachers. Students with better teachers are more likely to earn more income in the future and attend college and are less likely to have teenage pregnancies. Furthermore, schools with less funding are unable to afford mental health professionals, technology, and other valuable resources. Fixing inequities in educational funding could fundamentally alter the trajectory of a student’s life. Better educated students are more likely to be prepared for their careers, donate to charities, volunteer, and vote.2
ESEA and its reauthorizations have not made a significant difference because their roles are minor compared to that of local property tax funding. Furthermore, it can entrench the disparities created by the local funding system. For example, ESSA’s Race to the Top initiative allocated $400 million to the top school districts in the competition. Instead of providing funding to help improve struggling school districts, the program gives money to school districts that are already performing well and furthers the inequities garnered from the local funding system that hurt Black students. The minor amount of federal involvement facilitated through these policies is not enough to provide Black students with equal education; future reform should address the disparities created by local funding.
Recommendations for improving the education funding structure
There are different funding structures that produce more promising results than the system that relies heavily on local property taxes. For instance, Finland has some of the best educational outcomes in the world, despite spending less per student than the United States. Its schools are funded based on the number of students in each school at the national level, in stark contrast to how many American schools are funded. An exact translation of the policy would not be possible for reasons such as the emphasis placed on states’ rights in the United States.
However, it may be possible to distribute funds at the county level instead of the municipality level to address some of the inequities in funding while not infringing on states’ rights. For example, school districts in Georgia and Alabama often fall along county lines, and the funding in these states is thus more equitable for all students. This is because larger geographical tax bases allow for balancing out the differences in funding between wealthier and less wealthy municipalities. Adopting a similar strategy throughout the United States would reduce disparities between municipalities like Paterson and Princeton and help ensure that Black students receive equal educational funding compared to non-Black students.
National initiatives such as ESEA and ESSA are not enough to reduce the fundamental structural inequities in funding. Encouraging more state legislatures to mandate distributing funding at the county level based on the number of students instead of at the local level based on property taxes would help Black students attain their Constitutional right to an equal education. While funding is not the only issue Black students face in education, it is a critical barrier to providing equal education opportunities.
About the author: Kay Veerappan ’21 is a Neuroscience major in the Science and Humanities Scholars program at Carnegie Mellon University. She is interested in policies that promote growth and innovation in areas ranging from education to AI.