A bicycle cruises easily across an unbroken plane. Its wheels spin smoothly, periodically, the spokes a hazy blur of uniform motion. On a path lacking friction and obstructions, the circulation of these wheels will not cease. And without the power to slam on the brakes, the innocent pleasure of a bicycle ride can quickly turn perilous. Encapsulated by this simple analogy, the poverty of the United States today is a perpetual cycle containing harrowingly apparent dangers. Without intervention, the treacherous cycle of poverty is free to strangle Americans for generations and generations to come.
It doesn’t take much of a mental strain to make the connection between poverty and education; in fact, the link between the two is inextricable and widely understood. The Pioneer Institute found in 2017 that two-thirds of Americans lacking a high-school diploma made less than $25,000 annually. Simultaneously, the Century Foundation reported that employer demand for a college degree was at record high levels.
Education is the ticket to a well-paying job and consequently the primary means by which one climbs the socio-economic ladder. And as a nation that prides itself on its people’s ability to advance up the ladder through hard work, one would assume that each American citizen is entitled to an equal means to participate in the ascent. That would ensure the equality of opportunity. You cannot give a rock-climbing contest—even one where the climbers start from different levels—any validity if over half the participants do not have the necessary equipment.
But a lack of the necessary equipment is exactly the case for the low-income people of the U.S. There exists a blatant disparity in the quality of education between the rich and the poor, and at the root of the imbalance is inequity in school funding.
Primarily, the revenue from local property taxes is what funds public schools. According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2017, state and local fundings accounted for 93 percent of education expenditures. Over 80 percent of that came from property taxes. The value of property taxes increases, as one would expect, with the value of the homes. Therefore, in the poorer areas, where housing prices are substantially lower, much less money will be produced to fund the local schools. In short, American children from low-income families often have no choice but to attend defective, inadequately-funded public schools.
The noxious precipitate is destitute children being unable to find refuge in their schools. Existing in impoverished regions, these schools often mimic their external surroundings. They are more likely to be ripe with violence, drugs, or weapons, cultivating a hostile and unsafe atmosphere. The students’ financial instability is enough of a burden; the place they go to each day to receive an education shouldn’t inflame their perturbations.
In richer areas, students struggling financially may still have access to school-dispensed breakfasts, technology such as Chromebook laptops, digital whiteboards, and Wi-fi hotspots, and myriad other resources that work to make their days easier. And all because the schools in those more affluent areas can afford it. But the kids lowest on the ladder, the ones who may need those complimentary breakfasts and extracurricular sanctuaries the most, don’t even have access to the basic necessities of a learning environment. They lack up-to-date textbooks, sealed classroom windows, quality school libraries, and more essentials.
Kati Haycock, the CEO and president of The Education Trust, a national nonprofit education advocacy organization, sums the situation up nicely. “We take the very children who enter school with less and give them less in school too,” she says. These children are more likely to have home situations that would be greatly benefited by the supplements of a well-funded school, for many low-income families depend on constantly-working providers, often single parents.
Having a well-funded school would be a monumental service to these struggling homes. Kids could rely on their school for breakfast and lunch when they need it. Those without supervision could remain at school for extracurriculars once class ends. After-school programs would also curb the number of kids who, with nowhere else to go, turn to drugs or gangs. On the same note, low-income areas tend to have more students in need of auxiliary assistance; yet they have larger class sizes and significantly fewer tutors and guidance counselors.
Providing these schools with better funding could make school counselors more accessible. They’d be available to assist students afflicted with mental health troubles, which are more prevalent among low-income individuals. They’d also be able to work through behavioral infringements, thus decreasing suspension and expulsion rates. Better funding could allow for more teachers to better address pupil needs. It could offer increased homework aid for children whose parents may not have the time to help.
Additional funding would also augment student ambition. Without Wi-fi, proper materials, safe conditions, or motivated teachers, learning can prove abysmally onerous for these children; however, if they were to possess appropriate supplies and were under the tutelage of a sufficient number of qualified, well-paid instructors, the students would find the educational aspect of school less grueling.
The result would be a heightened incentive to succeed academically. That, coupled with a reduction of the dread felt upon contemplating returning to school each day, would allow kids to begin somewhat enjoying their school experience. This would decrease the likelihood of truancy and increase the likelihood that they pursue post-graduation higher learning. Furthermore, with improved college application resources at hand, they’d be better prepared to pursue post-graduation higher learning. All in all, it’s evident that supplying proper funding to educational institutions in low-income areas would help supply the local youth with greater purpose and direction in their lives, ultimately engendering more fruitful, stable futures for them.
But the problem at the focus of this article is that these kids do not have any of this. They are disadvantaged educationally simply because of their socio-economic status. The Connecticut State Department of Education reported in 2016 that high-income areas like Greenwich, Connecticut spend $6,000 more per pupil per year than high-poverty districts like Bridgeport, Connecticut do. And this lack of funding causes serious, tangible damage to the lives of adolescents.
Connecticut implemented a NextGen system in 2016 to measure college and career readiness and English and math skills. They found that Bridgeport’s average was 59.3 percent, compared to Greenwich’s score of 89.3 percent. Furthermore, a 2011 study published in the American Sociological Review found that Black children who grow up in areas with high levels of unemployment and poverty have a 76 percent chance of graduating from high school, versus a 96 percent chance for Black children living in affluent districts. In conjunction with this, white students living in low-income areas have an 87 percent chance of graduating versus the 95 percent graduation rate for their high-income residing counterparts. It is discernible that where the low-income areas are—and consequently, the low-funded schools—so are the low graduation rates. This paints a distinct nexus between low socioeconomic status, school funding, and educational performance.
The epidemic of locally funded schools incommensurately affects racial minorities as well. Black people, Hispanics, and Native Americans have the highest poverty rates by ethnicity in America (27.6 percent, 26.2 percent, and 23.4 percent, respectively, reports the 2016 US Census Data). These racial minorities are more often of low socio-economic status and hence more likely to live in low-income districts, putting them more at risk to the educational damages of financially deficient schools. Accordingly, the National KIDS COUNT Data Center reported in 2017-18 that 19 percent of Hispanics, 27 percent of Native Americans, and 21 percent of Black people didn’t graduate high school on time, compared to the only 11 percent of whites who didn’t.
Furthermore, the Pew Research Center explains that Black people and Hispanics are overrepresented in U.S. prisons. And they’re locked up primarily for nonviolent drug offenses, which are connected to an individual’s education. A 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey published by the CDC indicated that among U.S. high school students with mostly A’s, only 24 percent had used marijuana one or more times during their life, while 66 percent of students with mostly D/F’s had.
From this, one can see that substandard academic performance links drug usage to low-funded schools. Students are more likely to perform poorly at an insufficiently-funded school, and those students are, subsequently, more likely to turn to drugs. Students attending inadequate schools simply because they were born into poverty are now at higher risk of drug usage and consequential imprisonment. This perpetuates the racial unfairness of the criminal justice system; it also contributes to the nation’s mass incarceration issue.
It draws a dangerous, cyclical path. Children born into poverty attend defective schools. They’re less likely to succeed academically and consequently less likely to make enough to rise above the poverty line. They’re more likely to become involved with drugs and gangs. And a criminal record makes obtaining a job post-release difficult. Financially unable to relocate, they remain in low-income areas, and their progeny attend the same inadequate schools. Racial minorities suffer disproportionately from this, making it harder to free themselves from their race-based socio-economic disadvantages. All of these issues compound upon one another until children are plunged so deeply underground that clawing one’s way out can seem an impossible feat.
This battle has been raging for a while now. 45 out of the 50 states have filed school funding lawsuits. For some cash-strapped state governments, it isn’t viable to extract enough taxpayer money to make all public education institutions equitable. This is where the U.S. government could step in and subsidize the schools that need the money most. The U.S. spends billions of dollars a year keeping people in prison and endowing police forces. Funneling a portion of that money towards school budgets in low-income areas would work to attack the problems at the roots.
However, the Constitution does not list the regulation of education as one of the federal government’s enumerated powers. Due to that, its management is up to the states. Several cases have been made to assert that education is a constitutional entitlement. One argument is that an inadequate education obstructs children from exercising their 1st amendment rights by depriving them of a proper foundation of knowledge.
Another stance claims that since the 14th amendment mandates the equal treatment of each person as well as equal protection under the law, every kid should have the same educational opportunities as other children in their state. Furthermore, it’s been claimed that the federal government does have authority over education under the Commerce Clause. This is because of the undeniable connection between the completion of higher education and future economic and professional prospects.
America is one of the wealthiest nations globally. For it to advertise equality of opportunity as a fundamental value, one’s socioeconomic status cannot continue to hinder one’s education. Jonah Edelman, Ph.D., co-founder, and CEO of Stand for Children, agrees with this. The U.S. needs to “invest in high-quality education…to deal with the myriad issues that can accompany poverty,” he asserts.
In Finland, education comprises approximately 8 percent of the federal budget. However, in America, education claims only 2 percent of fiscal spending. Finland’s government shoulders 60 percent of the financial burden of schools; America takes on only 7 percent. Correspondingly, Finland is internationally known for its advanced education system. They outperform the U.S. in reading, science, and mathematics. There are other elements to consider as well, of course, such as Finland’s teacher selection process and their mantra of cooperation over competition, but funding holds a great weight as a factor. It’s the foundation; it makes all of the other reform possible.
The National Bureau of Economic Research corroborates the benefits of federally funded schools. In 2016 they found that increased spending for schools in low-income areas generated remarkable improvement in student performances in math and reading.
On top of that, they reported that a 20 percent increase in per-pupil spending a year for impoverished children could result in an additional year of completed schooling, 25 percent higher wages, and a 20-percentage point reduction in the occurrence of adulthood poverty. Repairing the way in which America funds its schools would empower each child with an equal opportunity to advance academically. It would better propel them into becoming constructive members of society, which would stimulate the economy. And it would set the U.S. on a path to rectifying a whole array of racial and inequality-based issues.
To enshrine America’s most crucial, inalienable right—equality—it is imperative that the nation embarks on a journey to federally funding the schools that need it. By the country’s own dogma, every American deserves an equal chance to chase success. Each child starts at a different point on the path, but inadequate educational facilities mean that for some, there is no path—only darkness. The United States supplying sufficient funds to the nation’s schools would be to cast a light upon this trail, allowing the economically disadvantaged children of America to actually take a step forward and begin the long trek towards their futures.