The American public education system is plagued by deep funding inequalities. These divides are created by differences in local wealth, and they are often too wide to be bridged with state funds. We need a better solution.
School district borders in America serve two roles. They define not only school systems, but also the local taxing districts that sustain them. Because of growing wealth inequality, funding gaps between affluent school districts and their needier neighbors are widening. States try to close these divides, but state funding, which is often drawn from unstable sources like sales, income, and energy taxes, just isn’t enough. We need a solution that goes beyond trying to patch the hole. We need to eliminate it.
By rethinking the role of school district borders—allowing local dollars to transcend these lines to support kids throughout the county or state—we can bolster funding for nearly 7 in 10 public school students.
The borders of many school districts serve to concentrate poverty in their classrooms and separate their students from resources. This report identifies the borders that create the greatest degree of economic segregation between districts.
The United States is dotted with left-behind places. Many mid-sized cities, especially in the former industrial regions spanning the northeast and Midwest, have struggled in a changing economy; they have seen employers leave and populations decline, leading to higher poverty rates and lower property values. When school district borders are drawn around these communities, poverty is concentrated in their classrooms, and school funding can become scarce. Sometimes, these borders also serve as walls between communities of very different means. On one side, needy students are isolated in a high-poverty school district; on the other, the children of an affluent community learn in a school system supported by a healthy local economy. This report identifies the borders that create the greatest degree of economic segregation between neighboring school districts.
America’s neighborhoods are all too segregated by race and class—and our school district borders mirror, and entrench, these divides.
There are almost 1000 school district borders in the United States that create steep divides: racial differences of 25 percentage points or more and revenue gaps of at least 10%. These borders cut illogically across communities and counties and serve to divide students from resources—and from each other. Along 132 of these borders, the divides are especially great, with racial disparities upwards of 50 percentage points and revenue gaps of 20% or more. And while it is true that predominately nonwhite communities are nationally disadvantaged when it comes to school funding, these divisive borders reveal that much of the reason for this is local, not national. Around the country, many school district borders both segregate students by race and define unequal tax bases that yield different levels of school funding.
Since 2000, 128 communities have tried to break away from their school district—and take their wealth with them.
Thirty states have explicit policies in place detailing how a community can secede from its current district, and most of those processes have no consideration for the needs of the students left behind. These laws, paired with school finance systems heighten the importance of local wealth, pave the way for gerrymandering that advantages the wealthy and deprives our neediest students of educational opportunities.