When I was nine years old, one of my cousins, who lived in the United States, visited me and my family in Mexico. For some reason, she brought one of her school books on her vacation. It was a beautiful hardcover book, full of illustrations, printed on fancy, shiny paper, filled with stories about kids and their families. What surprised me the most was that I knew my cousin attended a public school, and they had given her that book. In my country, public education was synonymous with a lack of resources, lack of opportunity, and certainly, lack of beautiful books. Her visit made me consider how nice it would be if every kid, regardless of their parents’ income, could read those stories and see those illustrations. It made me imagine the US as an opportunity paradise where every kid has access to quality education.
I was mistaken. My cousin was lucky; her district had a well-funded public elementary school where she had access to specialized teachers, counselors, and art classes. This school experience is reserved for children who already live in high-income neighborhoods or who have managed to get a special spot. The rest of the American students attend racially and economically segregated schools. Schools located in low-income communities do not collect sufficient funds, and therefore they often lack experienced teachers, advanced courses, and even adequate facilities.
According to the US Department of Education, high-poverty districts spend 15.6% less per student than low-poverty districts. Not only does this affect the lives of individual students, but it also means that the achievement gap between high and low-income students has increased 40% since 1970.
The problem is not just in government funding. Even if public schools offered the same opportunities to children, low-income students would still be at a disadvantage because wealthy parents tend to spend about seven times more on education. High-income parents can pay for pre-kindergarten, school materials, and extracurricular classes, which gives a competitive advantage to high-income children starting at a young age. If we consider that low-income children do not get the same quality of early education, it is easy to understand why it is much harder for them to get into college.
The effects that education inequality has on an individual level are no less staggering. The longer a person stays in school, the higher their expected adult income becomes. A higher degree of education reduces the risk of unemployment and positively impacts health and happiness. Even though a better education cannot guarantee a better life, it does have a significant positive impact in most cases.
If education is the basis of opportunity, and almost 80% of US’ citizens believe that a society should do everything in its power to assure equal opportunity, why is the US so complacent about educational inequality?
The root of the problem lies in how public schools get funded. 47% of funding comes from state revenue, 45% from local revenue, and only 8% from federal revenue. This means that almost half of public school funding comes from property taxes. Districts with high poverty rates likely have lower home values, and thus collect less tax money and are forced to hire yet another out-of-field teacher to teach a core subject. This problem is related to tax-assisted, exclusionary zoning.
According to Brookings Institution scholar Richard Reeves, exclusionary zoning is one of the strongest opportunity hoarding factors influencing intergenerational class reproduction. The upper middle class has pushed for rules and regulations that 1) result in their physical segregation and 2) protect their home values and, consequently, get them better schools. Reeves says that “zoning ordinances…have become important mechanisms for incorporating class divisions into urban physical geographies.” These divisions have worked: for low-income families it is difficult to buy a home in a neighborhood with high-performing schools as the houses are more expensive. “Unsurprisingly, homes near good elementary schools are more expensive: about two and a half times as much as those near the poorer-performing schools,” according to a study performed by Jonathan Rothwell.
Federal tax policy doesn’t make things easier. People who can afford those houses get a larger mortgage interest and property tax deductions. The tax system helps high-income people buy bigger, more expensive houses to create high-income neighborhoods with high-performing schools. At the same time, exclusionary zoning rules prevent low-income families from moving into these neighborhoods. Then, a kid’s education, opportunities, and future heavily depends on where can they parents afford a home.
A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that spending 20% more per low-income student leads to 25% higher income and 20% less probability of adult poverty. But the point shouldn’t just be spending more. To solve educational inequality, the law must provide policies that guarantee equal opportunity. The first step should be to guarantee universal access to a standard quality education with regularized funding.
The Campaign for Education Equity (CEE) suggests that a high quality, integrated system of education would require the government to spend $4,230 more per disadvantaged student. An integrated system includes health services, early education access, and family engagement support. They also estimate that 60% of this cost would be directly offset by fiscal benefits to the federal and state governments through higher tax revenues for the increased proportions of high school graduates.
One way of creating a higher quality education system is following Wyoming’s example of redistributive property taxes. Wyoming’s neighborhoods can raise money for their schools, but once they surpass a certain amount, the rest is allocated to lower-income schools. There are still funding gaps, but at least there is a baseline level of quality for public schools, regardless of their location. Of course, schools cannot be improved only through increasing funding; a system with specific standards and assessments like the CEE’s has to be well established in order to enhance the opportunities of every student.
Probably the most difficult part of enacting these policy changes is convincing the people in high-income neighborhoods. There is a general attitude that these type of policies are robbing the rich to benefit the poor. People don’t want to use their “taxpayer” money to fund the schools of others. Aren’t all of these exactly the purpose of taxes and public money? Just as Nikole Hannah-Jones said it, public money and public schools’ purpose is to “benefit the society as a whole, to privilege common good over individual advancement.” If equality of opportunity is to be achieved in the US, it is necessary to stop thinking in terms of zones, neighborhoods, and districts as borders.