It’s Time to Go Back to the Drawing Board for Public School Funding

by David Brunfeld

When Mark Twain was growing up, the residents living around the Mississippi River created a proposition to discontinue funding for public schools because of how expensive public schools were.[1] An old farmer asserted, in opposition, that “[i]f they stopped building the schools they would not save anything, because every time a school was closed a jail had to be built.”[2]

There is a fair amount of veracity in the old farmer’s words; it should come as no surprise that when education quality suffers, higher incarceration rates follow thereafter.[3] Roughly two thirds of all inmates across the country did not graduate high school.[4] These staggering numbers can largely be attributed to the difficulty in acquiring a job without a high school diploma, and without a job or any source of income, unemployment and incarceration cement a relationship.[5] To prevent this, we must continue to fund our public schools to ensure that youths of all backgrounds receive the best education we can afford to give them. Unfortunately, because of the system by which public schools are funded, this is not the case.[6] In reality, those living in lower income areas suffer with respect to their public schools’ funding.[7]

School funding in the United States varies across the country because states have a significant amount of discretion in running their education systems. On average, the funding is comprised of 45 percent local money, 45 percent state money, and 10 percent federal money.[8] Most of the local money is raised from property taxes in the same district as the school, but this form of funding is problematic because more impoverished areas raise lower revenues from property taxes than neighboring areas.[9] Accordingly, those born into poorer communities are at a higher risk of incarceration in large part because underfunded public schools have lower graduation rates than well-funded ones, and lower graduation rates yield unemployment and eventually incarceration. Children born into these neighborhoods deserve better: they deserve an opportunity to receive an education at the same quality as their counterparts in wealthier localities.

The manner with which communities raise local revenue for public schools is a very clear problem, yet only recently states have stepped in to offer assistance.[10] For example, North Carolina has recently increased its state funding for education so that two-thirds of public school revenue comes from the state.[11] However, North Carolina is the exception not the rule, and the gap between the richer and poorer schools in North Carolina is continuing to widen even with the extra help from the State.[12]

More states need to come to terms with the problems that poorer communities face with respect to education funding rather than turning a blind eye to it. This is not to say that communities should not rely on funding raised through property taxes at all. However, when almost 45 percent of the funding is reliant on that neighborhood’s wealth, poorer localities are left to face the consequences that come with lower quality education. In short, it is time to re-think how we fund our public schools. If we fix this glaring problem now, we can give more children the high-quality education they deserve while simultaneously decreasing crime rates and preventing the criminal justice system from disproportionately trapping low-income youth.

[1] National Education Association, http://www.nea.org/grants/35593.htm (last visited Sep. 24, 2017).

[2] Id.

[3] See Alliance for Excellent Education (Sep. 12, 2013) https://all4ed.org/press/crime-rates-linked-to-educational-attainment-new-alliance-report-finds/

[4] Id.

[5] Caitlin Curley, How Education Deficiency Drives Mass Incarceration, GenFKD (Nov. 11, 2016), http://www.genfkd.org/education-deficiency-drives-mass-incarceration

[6] Cory Turner, Why America’s Schools Have A Money Problem, NPR (Apr. 18, 2016), http://www.npr.org/2016/04/18/474256366/why-americas-schools-have-a-money-problem.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Reema Khrais, Even With Extra Help, Gap Between Rich and Poor NC Schools Is Widening, WUNC (Apr. 16, 2016), http://wunc.org/post/even-extra-help-gap-between-rich-and-poor-nc-schools-widening#stream/0.