Providing high-quality K-12 education to economically disadvantaged children is perhaps the best way to help reverse rising inequality in America. A well-educated child, regardless of socio-economic or racial background, will be equipped to participate in today’s knowledge economy and move up the income ladder. Unfortunately, the very children who need education the most are the ones who tend to be trapped in poorly performing schools. That is partly due to how K-12 education is funded.  

Data by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) show that, on average, the federal government provides approximately 10 percent of K-12 education funding. The remainder is made up of funds provided by state and local governments. States use portions of their revenues from personal income, corporate, and sales taxes to fund schools, while local governments rely on a combination of property and local income taxes.

There is a wide disparity in the ratios of state to local government funding among the states. NCES data for the 2012-13 academic year (the last year for which data is compiled) show that in Vermont, for example, the state provided 88.9 percent of K-12 education funding, with local governments contributing just 4 percent. In contrast, state-level funding in Illinois was only 26 percent, with local districts providing 57.5 percent.

Because generally, American children can only attend public schools in districts (zip codes) where their families live, the quality of education a child receives in a state like Illinois, where funding responsibility is predominantly on local governments, can vary significantly from one zip code to the next. School districts in which property values are high and stable, and where businesses are thriving, will naturally have higher levels of funding—and hence better ability to provide higher-quality education—relative to those that have high unemployment rates and weak housing markets.

In her 2015 TED talk titled “Lucky Zip Codes,” Amy Hunter blamed such heavy reliance on local funding for the poor educational outcomes in many parts of America, particularly where people of color constitute the majority population. According to her, the historical use of racial covenants in places like St. Louis, Missouri has resulted in blacks becoming concentrated in poor zip codes, where the schools lack the resources required to provide good-quality education.

There are other factors, apart from racist policies, that have helped create these inequities. Many local economies have stagnated—or collapsed—due to structural changes in the national economy. Loss of manufacturing jobs, resulting from offshoring and automation, leads to high unemployment and dwindling property values in post-industrial areas, which in turn leads to school underfunding. Under those circumstances, children from all racial groups are impacted.

Sociologists have worried over the past few decades that this combination of racism and economic dislocation is increasingly making it impossible for disadvantaged children to achieve the American dream. In his book, Our Kids, Robert Putnam lamented that within a five-decade period, his once-thriving hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, where upward mobility was attainable through hard work for every child, regardless of racial or socio-economic background, had become “a split-screen American nightmare, a community in which kids from the wrong side of the tracks that bisect the town can barely imagine the future that awaits the kids from the right side of the tracks.”

Thankfully, the news is not all bad for children who live in “unlucky” zip codes. States have finance formulas that are designed to distribute funding to schools in a manner that achieves equal educational opportunity across school districts. Through those mechanisms, poor localities receive higher levels of state funding relative to wealthier districts. As one would expect, this funding system works better in some states than others. In a 2012 paper, Bruce Baker and Sean Corcoran identified New Jersey and Ohio as two states with progressive funding systems, whereas others such as North Carolina and Illinois fared poorly on that measure.

State governments are not always reliable partners however, when it comes to education funding. According to a November 2017 report issued by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), nationally, state education funding dropped sharply after the Great Recession, and has yet to recover in some states. Making matters worse, due to budget shortfalls resulting from dwindling tax revenues, tax cuts, and various political priorities, some states have cut education funding well below 2008 (pre-recession) levels. Data provided in the CBPP report show eight states with more than 10 percent funding cut—with one, Oklahoma, having reduced per-student expenditure by 28.2 percent over the ten-year period from 2008 through 2018.

Because the level of federal government funding is relatively static, school districts have to find ways to fill those gaps left by the loss of state funds. Wealthy districts are often able to. They have better housing markets and so can generate additional tax revenues. Private donations from parents and various organizations within their jurisdictions also serve as sources of funds for academic and extracurricular programs that might otherwise be cut. Schools in poorer districts don’t have those luxuries. It is not uncommon to find overburdened teachers in such areas having to use their own money to buy supplies to keep their classrooms functioning.

It is a sad reality of American life that poorly functioning schools across the country are overwhelmingly populated by children of color—a result of racial segregation that has occurred over several decades. Those children are also unlucky to live and attend school in neighborhoods where crime rates tend to be high, and law enforcement policies are not always just. Such environmental conditions can break even the most resilient of spirits.

That notwithstanding, there are schools in many poor zip codes with good-enough resources to provide the basic education disadvantaged children need to escape the less-than-ideal environments into which they are born. The painful truth is that large numbers of children in those communities fail to take advantage of the opportunities. I taught in one such school district. As a black male who relied on education to escape a birthplace that, in some ways, was far more desolate, I was horrified to see so many of my students showing such little interest in school.

All Americans, not just people of color, are affected by the chronic under-education of children in poor zip codes. We pay for the welfare programs that take care of them in adulthood when they cannot find employment because of their poor education. Then there is the school-to-prison issue. Mass incarceration of young people, particularly black males, who are often products of poorly performing schools, costs this country dearly. On average, it cost $36,299.25 to keep one inmate in federal prison in fiscal year 2017, according to Federal Register data.

Similar levels of per-inmate expenditure occur in state prison systems. In contrast, data published by Education Week show that nationally, per-pupil K-12 education funding averaged $12,526 in 2018. Clearly, it is far more cost-effective to educate a young person to become a productive member of society, rather than house him or her in prison. That is why we must collectively join the effort to exert pressure on elected officials to fund schools appropriately.

But, as we wage this battle, we should be careful not to also send overly negative signals to disadvantaged children. The defeatism I observed in my classrooms was, in my view, partly a result of those children having been exposed to too much talk about the utter hopelessness of their situation. Amy Hunter spoke about encouraging her sons to work twice as hard as everyone else in school as a way for them to succeed. Life is unfair for many reasons, not just because of racism; sitting still and feeling sorry for oneself is a ruinous approach that every disadvantaged child should avoid at all cost. One of the most important gifts we can give such children is helping them learn how to work with the resources they have.