50 Years Older and Deeper in Debt

RETHINKING SCHOOLS, Stan Karp, August 1, 2023 

The Shaky Foundations of U.S. School Funding

This year marks the 50th anniversary of San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the landmark 5-4 Supreme Court decision that held that education is not a fundamental right protected by the U.S. Constitution. The decision dashed hopes that the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling that ended legal segregation in 1954 would be followed by a sustained federal commitment to making education equality a reality.

Demetrio Rodriguez was a sheet metal worker and a member of the Edgewood Concerned Parent Association when he became the lead plaintiff in the case. He thought his three children were being shortchanged by wide disparities in schooling across the sprawling San Antonio school district and the state of Texas. Parents hoped the case would clearly establish a federal right to education.

Instead, the San Antonio decision closed the federal treasury to advocates of funding equity and set the stage for decades of legal battles over 50 state school finance systems that provide sharply different levels of education to students from different class, race, and community backgrounds. Those court battles, and the organizing and advocacy they generated, made some significant gains. But today the U.S. school funding landscape remains littered with unequal and inadequate state funding systems and is in urgent need of transformation. One recent national survey found that “unequal opportunity is a universal feature of state school finance systems.”

Still, there is reason for hope. Activists and advocates are reaping the lessons of a half century of funding battles and planning the next wave. In February, Pennsylvania’s system of funding schools, one of the most unfair in the country, was declared illegal after a 10-year court battle, opening up a debate over how to reform it (see below). Also encouraging, researchers, organizers, and policy advocates are developing notions of what “transformative justice in school funding” could look like.

Reproducing Inequality Instead of Eradicating It

The process of remaking school funding in the United States begins with understanding how the current system reproduces inequality instead of eradicating it.

In most countries the right to education is enshrined in the national constitution and supported by a centralized, national funding system. The patchwork U.S. system of local property taxes and 50 separate state funding systems makes it an outlier. As with voting rights, the lack of strong federal protections provides room for less transparent and less equitable state and local systems. 

The absence of a federal guarantee of basic educational rights can be traced to the country’s historic fault lines. While Horace Mann was organizing “common schools” in Massachusetts in the 1800s, public education didn’t exist in most parts of the country, and even aspiring to literacy was a crime for most Black people. Arguably, public education got its biggest boost from Reconstruction when multiracial legislatures in the South supported the establishment of public schools and Radical Republicans in Congress demanded that clauses guaranteeing universal access to free public education be added to state constitutions as a condition of re-admission to the union. 

But the end of Reconstruction and the consolidation of Jim Crow culminated in the “separate but equal” era of Plessy v. Ferguson, and states’ rights — including “local control” of schools — became central components of segregation in the United States. A federal takeover of school funding never happened for the same reasons that federal efforts to end segregation, even after the Brown decision, were weak and indecisive: The structures of white supremacy and class privilege were stronger than society’s democratic and egalitarian impulses.

Some retrospectives marking the anniversary of San Antonionoted how these same factors were reflected in the court’s decision. Chalkbeat reporter Matt Barnum offered evidence that four of the justices in the 5-4 majority (all recent Nixon appointees) were swayed by “an influential cadre of social scientists [who] claimed it didn’t matter how much money schools spent. In fact, maybe schools weren’t actually a key factor in what students learned. Maybe — most insidiously — poor children of color weren’t likely to succeed in school no matter how well funded their schools.”