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Maureen Kelleher

The Case for Education Reparations

$23 billion. According to a recent report from Ed Build, that’s the gap in state and local funding between what kids in predominantly White districts are getting and what kids in predominantly non-White districts are getting. (And, yes, those districts are serving roughly the same numbers of children.) You thought we fixed the unequal part of “separate and equal” when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education? Nope. When it comes down to money—and it always comes down to money—we haven’t fixed it yet. Not at all. In fact, there’s a good case to be made for educational reparations. It is taxes on residential property—homes—that are the fundamental basis of school funding in the United States. And as history shows, African-Americans were systematically locked out of home ownership. The legacy of redlining means that communities of color lose out on the taxable wealth that funds schools in White communities. Last week, the reparations movement gained a surprising new supporter in David Brooks. Five years after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ influential article on the topic, Brooks sees the need for “direct action” and “a concrete gesture of respect” to heal racial divisions in the United States. However, he remains convinced that reparations are also “drastic” and “hard to execute.”

Before We Get Solutions, Mindsets Must Change

Brooks can let go of his handwringing over the mechanics of reparations. Addressing school funding inequity offers an obvious starting point for the work. Disparities in local property tax wealth driven by the historic exclusion of Black people from home ownership are the root cause of the problem, and their effects have continued to put generations of children of color at a lifetime disadvantage. Where Brooks gets it right is in arguing that the first step toward reparations involves changing deep-seated mindsets about our stories and the history of the United States. Here on Education Post, recent Illinois Teacher of the Year Lindsey Jensen wrote about encountering some of those mindsets in conversation with a teacher working in a wealthy school district. Essentially, Jensen took issue with the idea that families in those districts have earned the right to expect more from their schools, while other families are less deserving of high-quality education. Ed Build points out key ways in which predominantly White, wealthy school districts continue to hoard resources today. These districts often cover a smaller geographic area, meaning there are more of them than there are of poor, non-White districts, which tend to be larger. Think multiple small suburban districts versus one district for a large city. Now imagine the superintendents and parents of those small suburban districts bringing a mindset of privilege to state capitols across the U.S. As the authors of the Ed Build report put it, “When there are six times more members of a special interest, that special interest is likely to be more effective in the state capitol.” The resource equity gap persists despite landmark court cases in states like New Jersey and New York, where judges ruled the state had a responsibility to make up for the gap in local funding between wealthy (usually Whiter) and poor (usually less White) districts. But states have failed to make good on this obligation. During the Great Recession, state funding for education dried up. In 29 states, school funding has yet to return to pre-recession levels. The Aspen Institute’s Danielle Gonzales shows what this means on the ground: children of color not getting enough of “the good stuff,” including top teachers, counselors, social workers, nurses, challenging coursework, strong and culturally relevant curricula, advanced opportunities like gifted programs and AP courses, and extracurricular options. We also see this inequity in action when parents use false addresses to help their children access educational opportunities. We see it when parents file a lawsuit to access magnet schools because schools in their own communities are subpar. Policy ideas for how to fix inequitable school funding exist. Ed Build has championed a number of strategies, from tweaking existing property tax systems to allowing state dollars to be used at local discretion, to broad overhauls of state funding systems that direct more dollars to the communities that need them most. But until we change mindsets about who deserves the wealth we have, we won’t have the political will to tackle any of the solutions. Take a look at that number again: $23 billion. While a recent poll showed large majorities of both Democrats and Republicans want more federal money in schools, federal funds make up only about 10 percent of total spending on schools. The real money lies in local property wealth, which has never been a force for equity. It’s time to understand the history of how that wealth was generated and rethink our reliance on it to educate students.
Maureen Kelleher
Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Partner at Ed Post. She is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to ...

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