In the United States, financially struggling school districts are often left to their own devices while state governments neglect to mediate much-needed district mergers. Without government intervention, wealthier neighboring districts can close the gates to education for students from poorer areas who have nowhere else to turn.
A recent report by nonprofit organization EdBuild looked at what causes this widespread issue of inequity in education.
The trouble with funding and borders
Much of school funding comes from state property taxes. This makes school funding consistent with the economic conditions of the larger district in which they’re located—in essence, when a school’s surrounding community is impoverished, the school probably is, too.
The report highlights the story of Midland, Pennsylvania’s decades-long struggle to financially support its local schools. After losing a steel mill in the 1980s, the school district lost its primary funding source. Merging districts was a potential solution, but since PA state law requires merger approval from both local school boards and the State Board of Education, every other district in Midland turned down merger requests and the local high school had to shut down. Its students were forced to bus to a number of other schools in neighboring districts—some across state lines in Ohio—in order to access education.
To make matters worse, many wealthier areas in larger school districts are seceding and starting their own smaller school districts, taking their state funding with them. Erika Wilson, a professor and education policy specialist at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, believes this is hardly accidental and even carries a racial component. She points out that forming smaller and comparatively wealthy school districts within existing poorer ones creates de facto racial segregation.
“[W]e can’t discriminate on [the] basis of race, but there are other race-neutral proxies that we can use,” Wilson says. “One of those is to fragment school districts—to draw lines so they track a much more narrow jurisdiction, which is important because racial segregation occurs between municipalities. By drawing lines like that, school systems aren’t discriminated by basis of race by letter of the law, but de facto that’s what you have.”
EdBuild found that most state governments have no power to ensure that poorer school districts are absorbed into wealthier districts: in all but nine states, there are no laws governing district mergers. As EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia notes, “The vast majority of states in the country completely abdicate their responsibilities on this. […] Ultimately, it’s the state’s responsibility to ensure kids have access to education.”
Until state governments take a greater role in mediating school district mergers and managing how tax dollars are used in education, racial and class inequities will persist, and struggling school districts will continue to be left behind.