School funding equity is not as clear cut as you think

In my grad schoolwork, I came across the following uncredited passage:

The local history of racism and inequity in Memphis has tangible implications for students today. Schools in Memphis remain highly segregated more than 65 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial segregation in U.S. schools. The majority population in Memphis is Black (63 percent) while the majority in the surrounding nearby towns is White (68 percent). Suburban schools are better funded than those in the city, and more than half of these under-funded city schools have student populations in which 90% or more students are Black. Efforts in the last decade to merge the city and suburban schools, to more equitably distribute tax dollars to all learners in the county, were undermined when suburban leaders “seceded” from the county school district — invoking a term and action historically associated with the U.S. Civil War over slavery and the legacy of anti-Black racism in the U.S. South. These actions ensured that suburban tax dollars flow solely to the nearest suburban schools, further solidifying the city’s long-standing racial and economic school segregation (Strauss, 2018).

My eye caught the line “Suburban schools are better funded than those in the city”. Many years ago, when I was a budding progressive political activist in high school, I had heard similar things about the Boston area, and I found this fact infuriating. Eager for ammunition that I could repeat in my calls for change, I phoned up the reference library desk at Boston Public Library’s central branch — yes, this was before the internet could deliver such info — and asked for help researching the per pupil expenditures in Boston and its suburbs.

The librarian came back with the most recent available numbers, and every single Boston suburb I could name had lower per pupil spending than Boston. The average difference was dramatic. It was the first time I realized that the progressive consensus sometimes obscures a more complex reality.

So, many years later, I read the line above about Memphis suburbs and suspected it was wrong. Take a moment to consider the weight of this: I am not, and have never been, employed as a researcher or journalist about education. I’m in grad school for education now, but I’m only a few weeks in. Why should I suspect that a statement of straightforward numerical fact, presented without question by the world’s most accredited experts, is false? And if it is, is that merely a mistake, like misspelling a town name? Or might it be a sign of some form of deliberate ignorance?

Here’s what I found, with about an hour’s online research. This government site has 2018–19 per pupil expenditures. The relevant districts are:

And the six suburbs that “seceded” around 2013, with 32,928 students total:

Now, there are many factors to consider besides those numbers alone. For one thing, these districts are not all the same size. Weighing by population, the average per pupil expenditure in these suburbs is $9,517.

(My math took the population of each town like this, which I want to show in case I made a mistake:)

(2484*10631+8986*9960+9002*9511+6055*9066+4672*8954+1729*8750)/(2484+8986+9002+6055+4672+1729) = 9517

So, Memphis’s school district appears to spend 24% more per pupil than these suburbs; or you could say the suburban districts spend 19% less than Memphis.

Another difference is the amount that the locality itself pays in each district. Memphis gets higher federal and state funding; its local contribution is $4,821 per pupil, while the suburbs (weighted again by population) contribute an average of $4,773, essentially the same.

Note that there’s also a state-run “district” made up of mostly charter schools in Memphis (one school is in Nashville), which were converted from public schools that were declared to be failing. There are 10,576 students in this “Achievement School District”, and it is funded at $10,654 per pupil, with twice the state funding that Shelby/Memphis or suburban schools get, and essentially zero local funding.

So, if you consider that the funding burden for this ASD district was taken off of Shelby/Memphis’s hands, you could say there is about 9% more local funding per pupil going to the suburban schools than to all of Memphis’s schools across both of its internal districts. Considering this local funding difference, the suburban schools may well have improved their funding by seceding from the Shelby district, relative to before; but if so, their total per pupil funding was lower than Memphis’s before, and it’s still 19% lower now. It simply does not seem to be true that Memphis’s “suburban schools are better funded than those in the city”.

Another possibility: could the difference largely be attributed to rates of special education needs? It doesn’t appear so; both Shelby and the surrounding suburbs seem to have about the same percentage of students categorized as special ed, 12%. It doesn’t appear that special education dominates per pupil spending the same way it does in the Northeast progressive school districts I’m familiar with, like NYC and Boston. This might be a sign that disabilities are under-diagnosed in Memphis, and that diagnosis rates could rise if there were more ready resources. Just because Memphis schools seem well funded relative to Memphis’s suburbs, does not mean they are funded as well as they should be.

Also of note, when thinking about the dynamics of racism and racial segregation that are involved: there is a small but substantial Black student population in these suburbs; from 10% to 39% of enrolled students. I’d like to go back and weigh these numbers by total student population, but I’d guess the Black student population is somewhere in the 20%-25% range for these suburban districts; it is around 90% in Shelby.

So what?

It’s satisfying to take a distressing problem like disparate academic outcomes, and chalk it up to prejudice; to show White parents marching with signs, and to shake our heads at their hatefulness. This felt to me like the core argument of the podcast series Nice White Parents, as emblematized in the episode where a White parent visits the new school and is surprised to find the mostly Black students so rowdy in class, and the host calls that out as code for racism. And it may well have been; but even without racism, some schools really are more chaotic than others, and there really are consequences for that. As a substitute teacher in Brooklyn, I witnessed a teenager in a chaotic classroom assault another child in the presence of the principal. And in my own process of looking at schools for my kids in Brooklyn, I was struck by the wide gaps in the Department of Education surveys of parents as to how safe their kids are in school. When most Black parents of Black children in a school report that they feel their child isn’t safe there, are they merely being prejudiced? Or is avoiding that school a prudent decision for any parent, as much as that is painful for the families that remain?

This isn’t a matter of a difference of opinion; it feels sometimes like in progressive circles, we don’t even have the language to articulate the facts on the ground. “Suburban schools are better funded than those in the city” is a core tenet of the case for placing institutional and systemic racism at the root of educational inequities. But the funding numbers just don’t line up neatly with that belief. Our assumptions are so far out of whack that we’re not only throwing around factual inaccuracies, we’re throwing around factual inaccuracies so transparently naive that people who have done far less research — whose only advantage is a lack of fealty to progressive pieties — can spot them in an instant.

It’s not that I agree with the White middle-class parents who pushed their suburbs to secede from Shelby County School District; I absolutely do not. I think we need a system that demands and incentivizes integration, and that means students traveling far for school, and a lower standard of academic success among peers than many parents want. But we shouldn’t pretend that this is easy, even for those of us who believe in it. Nearly all educated and middle-class parents make some sort of tradeoff between our kids’ predicted outcomes, and other kids’ predicted outcomes. Sure, you may send your kid to public school, and sneer at private school elitists; but do you send your kid to the public school in your district with the absolute worst test scores? Did you choose to live in a town or district where the public schools are considered better than other nearby options? Do you choose to live in one of the wealthiest nations in human history, when poor nations with suffering schools would love to have your tax dollars, your political involvement and your relatively high-achieving student as a peer? Unless you send your kid to the absolute most troubled, dangerous and inattentive school there is, you are also making this sort of tradeoff; you are also choosing to give your kid an advantage, to the disadvantage of others. I believe fiercely that we need policies that sacrifice the wealth of the privileged — including in non-monetary forms — and share more of it with the under-privileged. But we shouldn’t pretend that to resist losing these forms of wealth is the same as bigotry, or just a form of enforcing racial caste.

I think racial segregation is a problem — a huge problem — and one that we urgently need to address. But let’s recognize what we are actually asking for. We are asking that poor students travel farther for school, and that their school environments become safer and feature a higher level of academic performance and behavior compliance. And we are asking that middle class students travel farther as well, and that their school environments become less safe and feature a lower level of academic performance and behavior compliance.

I put this in plain terms because I take this challenge seriously. I want to fight for that change, vehemently, because I think equity is truly vital. We need to face the reality that there need not be a shred of prejudice, or aversion to Black students, for a middle class White family to resist that change. And if you are a proponent of the fight for equity but you refuse to describe in plain terms the changes your policies seek, I challenge you to ask yourself how much you are truly committing to this fight.

Is equity only worthwhile if it’s painless — if it mostly consists of White hearts relaxing their irrational prejudice? Is equity only worthwhile if the demands are easy? If your loudest demand is for funding equity, and it actually already exists, are you a warrior for transformation, or for the status quo?



Independent programmer, chatterbox.

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