For black, brown, and low-income students, public education is underfunded on purpose


Like many reports, the latest from the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS) drops a number of disturbing facts.

Between 2005 and 2017, the federal government neglected to spend $580 billion it was supposed to on students from poor families and students with disabilities. Over that same time, the personal net worth of the nation’s 400 wealthiest people grew by $1.57 trillion.

Seventeen states actually send more education dollars to wealthier districts than to high-poverty ones.

Over 1.5 million students attend a school that has a law enforcement officer, but no school counselor. The school policing industry was a $2.7 billion market as of 2015.

But Confronting the Education Debt doesn’t just throw numbers against other numbers to see what sticks. It tells a tragic story: the rich are getting richer, and our public schools are broke on purpose. And it comes to an indisputable conclusion: black, brown, and low-income students and their schools are owed billions of dollars.

That’s because many public schools do in fact work, but only when they are fully resourced, which tends to be in white, middle class, and affluent communities.

These findings drive home that adding market forces to public education — so-called “school choice” — is a superficial and, even, harmful attempt at solving a deep and enduring problem. After being hijacked as a political project by private investors and billionaires, charter schools have begun to threaten the existence of public education itself. As they grow in number, they siphon more and more funding from school districts, forcing cuts at traditional, neighborhood schools. Charter schools are costing San Diego Unified School District, for example, over $65 million annually — or about $620 per neighborhood school student.

Meanwhile, some charter school operators rely on weak regulation to pocket public dollars — like the Arizona Republican lawmaker in the news this week for raking in up to $30 million from the charter school chain he owns.

So, what is the answer? That’s what makes this report so powerful. The answer is right in front of our noses: working families, whether they’re black, brown, or white, must together demand a Marshall Plan-level of investment aimed at education justice. One that pays teachers what they deserve, fully resources all schools, divests from the school-to-prison pipeline, and invests in community schools.

This would mean that all students get a great education, not just those from wealthy families or families with the time and know-how to enroll them in a charter school. The rhetoric of “school choice” drives a wedge between families that otherwise share common interests.

As journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones writes in a defense of democratically operated — truly public — public schools, “Even when they fail, the guiding values of public institutions, of the public good, are equality and justice. The guiding value of the free market is profit.”


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Jeremy Mohler is a writer and communications strategist for In the Public Interest, a nonprofit that advocates for the democratic control of public goods and services. He’d love to hear from you: jmohler@inthepublicinterest.org