Inequality in Education

September 16, 2003

Across the country, parents, teachers, students and others concerned about our country's educational system are unfolding a variety of struggles to demand increased funding for the public schools and for equality in funding so as to guarantee the right of working class and minority children to a modern education.

One result of these struggles was an important decision this summer by the state of New York's Court of Appeals which ruled that for years the state budget systematically underfunded New York City's public schools denying students their right to education.

In a suit brought by the "Campaign for Fiscal Equity," the Court held that every student is entitled to a "meaningful high school education" and that "The State must assure that some essential [resources] are provided." In reviewing extensive documentation on such key educational inputs as class size, overcrowded facilities, libraries, computers, laboratories, etc., the Court found that "tens of thousands of students are placed in overcrowded classrooms, taught by unqualified teachers and provided with inadequate facilities and equipment." These conditions are directly linked to the fact that while an average of $11,040 was spent per student statewide in 1999-2000 only $10,469 per pupil was spent in New York City, despite its much higher cost of living and the additional educational needs of many students.

In its decision, the Court rejected the anti-working class and racist argument of the state government which tried to claim that "poor student performance is caused by socioeconomic conditions independent of the quality of the schools." The Court declared that "we cannot accept the premise that children come to the New York City schools ineducable, unfit to learn." The Court insisted that educational resources must be "calibrated to student need" so that a sound basic education is available to all.

The Court mandated that the state reform its funding system within 1 year in order to provide each school with the requisite level of resources to guarantee the educational rights of all students.

Similar legal battles are underway in many states. For example, this summer the Nebraska School Trust filed a lawsuit indicting the state funding system because it "fails to provide the resources required to afford thousands of public school students....the opportunity to obtain the free instruction guaranteed by Nebraska's constitution and laws, and an equal opportunity to meet the academic standards set by law." The suit points out that many students do not have access to early childhood education, all-day kindergarten, appropriate class sizes, adequate curriculum and other programs. Educational activists have recently filed similar suits in Massachusetts and South Carolina.

The plain truth is that at present the government operates a dual school system with the children of the working class and oppressed minorities condemned to separate and unequal schools.

To begin with, the federal government refuses to take up the responsibility to properly fund the public schools, providing only 9% of total monies for elementary and secondary schools. Thus the financial burden falls on the states and local communities.

But school districts in poorer communities simply lack sufficient resources while many states contribute little or use funding formulas which favor richer districts over poorer ones. Thus, for example, while New Jersey spends an average of $10,283/pupil, Utah spends only $4,331/pupil. Even within the same district, school authorities often favor the richer communities. A study by Chicago's "Save Our City Coalition" found that during the 1998-99 school year, some elementary schools received an average of $5,978/pupil while others received as little as $1,875/pupil. This latter figure is nearly ten times less than the per pupil spending of certain public school districts in Connecticut and New Jersey which allocate more than $14,000/year/pupil.

For working class and minority children these statistics translate into larger class sizes, less instructional time, lack of needed materials, rundown facilities, etc.

Thus, there are few things more enraging than to hear government leaders complain about the "poor performance" of students and schools in working class and minority communities.

It is the government itself which must be hauled into the dock and held responsible for criminally disinvesting in the schools in working class and minority communities.