unequal education in America due to location differences


In 1954 the Supreme Court declared that public education is “a right which must
be made available to all on equal terms.”1
That landmark decision in Brown v.
Board of Education stood for the proposition that the federal government would
no longer allow states and municipalities to deny equal educational opportunity
to a historically oppressed racial minority. Ruling unanimously, the justices overturned the noxious concept that “separate” education could ever be “equal.”
Yet today, nearly 60 years later, our schools remain separate and unequal. Almost
40 percent of black and Hispanic students attend schools where more than 90 percent of students are nonwhite.

The average white student attends a school where
77 percent of his or her peers are also white.3
Schools today are “as segregated as
they were in the 1960s before busing began.”4
We are living in a world in which
schools are patently separate.
In Brown the Court focused on the detrimental impact of legal separation—the
fact that official segregation symbolized and reinforced the degraded status of
blacks in America. 

Today’s racial separation in schools may not have the formal
mandate of local law, but it just as surely reflects and reinforces lingering status
differences between whites and nonwhites by enabling a system of public
education funding that shortchanges students of color.
Separate will always be unequal. But just how unequal is the education we offer
our students of color today? This paper answers this question using one small but
important measure—per-pupil state and local spending. This fraction of spending is
certainly not the only useful measure of educational opportunity. How we spend our
money is perhaps more important.5
But newly released data give us the opportunity
to shed new light, specifically on inequity in spending from state and local sources.
For the first time ever, the U.S. Department of Education in 2009 collected
school-level expenditure data that includes real teacher salaries. Amazingly,

this had never been done before. I use these data to examine per-pupil spending
in public schools, finding that: 

• Students of color are being shortchanged across the country when compared
to their white peers. 

• The traditional explanation—that variation in schools’ per-pupil spending stems
almost entirely from different property-tax bases between school districts—is
inaccurate. In fact, approximately 40 percent of variation in per-pupil spending
occurs within school districts.

 • Changing a particular provision of federal education law—closing the so-called
comparability loophole—would result in districts making more equitable
expenditures on students of color.
Variation within a district is largely due to district budgeting policies that ignore
how much money teachers actually earn. When veteran teachers elect to move
to low-need schools in richer, whiter neighborhoods,

 they bring higher salaries
to those schools. New teachers who tend to start out in high-need schools, serving
many students of color and poor students, earn comparatively low salaries. This
leads to significantly lower per-pupil spending in the schools with the highest
concentrations of nonwhite students.
To date, the size of the problem has been difficult to measure due to a lack of data.
Other researchers have made important contributions to these conversations by
documenting a pattern of underinvestment in minority students

but they have
been hampered by a frustrating lack of information. In 2009 the Obama administration showed that it recognized the importance of this issue by including a
requirement in the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 that districts report actual state and local spending on school-level personnel and nonpersonnel resources in school year 2008–09. In December 2011 the administration
released the information to the public.
My analysis based on these new data calls into question a specific federal policy that
is supposed to guard against within-district inequities. Title I of the Elementary and
Secondary Education Act is the federal government’s primary contribution to public
education for students living in poverty. In order to receive Title I money, school
districts have to promise to provide educational services to their higher-poverty
schools that are “comparable” to those provided to the lower-poverty schools.

School districts across the country routinely tell the federal government that they are
meeting this requirement. But the law explicitly requires districts to exclude teacher
salary differentials tied to experience when determining comparability compliance.
This is a major exclusion because experience is a chief driver of teachers’ salaries.
This misleading process leads to a misleading result—districts think they are providing equal spending on high-need schools and low-need schools, even though they

This problem has been frequently called the comparability loophole.
The comparability requirement is, similar to most federal education law, silent
on race. This paper builds upon the well-documented correlation between people
of color and people living in poverty7
to assess the ongoing impact of the comparability loophole on students of color.
In the first part of this paper, I paint a detailed picture of what is happening for
our students of color across the country. The second part models two alternative futures in which state and local spending experience a one-time growth of
approximately 4 percent. In the first model, present policy trends continue—we
do not close the comparability loophole. In the second, we close the loophole by
“leveling up” spending in schools that are currently being shortchanged. Table 1
presents the top-line findings. (see Table 1)

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