Achievement Gap Between U.S. Richest and Poorest Students Growing Dramatically

NPR is running a series of stories on the nationwide school-funding imbalance, to explain what happens when many of America’s poorest students also attend its poorest schools.

Some of the information from the reports comes from “Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card (NRC)”, released by the Education Law Center (ELC) on March 16, 2016 which found that “in most states, public school funding remains unfair and inequitable, depriving millions of U.S. students of the opportunity for school success.” One of the more disturbing findings of the report is that “Certain regions of the country exhibit a double disadvantage – many states with low funding overall add no additional funds for concentrated student poverty. These include Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida in the Southeast, and Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico in the Southwest.”


As Bruce Baker, the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education Professor who developed the report’s methodology, told NPR:

You’ve got highly segregated rich and poor towns. [They] raise vastly different amounts of local revenue based on their local bases . . .”

(Perhaps needless to add, richer students can also opt out of the public school system altogether, attending expensive magnet schools that provide them with even more of an advantage for colleges and their futures. In addition, they also have ready access to educational enhancements, such as computers, robotic courses, studies abroad, and the like, that poorer districts rarely see.)

Kentucky FIRST LEGO League’s State Robotics Competition

Kentucky FIRST LEGO League’s State Robotics Competition

In San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (411 U.S. 1, 1973), plaintiffs argued that the way schools are funded violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause, which says that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” In a split 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled against Rodriguez, with Justice Lewis Powell delivering the opinion of the Court, averring there is no right to equal funding in education under the U.S. Constitution:

Nothing this Court holds today in any way detracts from our historic dedication to public education. We are in complete agreement with the conclusion of the three-judge panel below that “the grave significance of education both to the individual and to our society” cannot be doubted. [n69] But the importance of a service performed by the State does not determine whether it must be regarded as fundamental for purposes of examination under the Equal Protection Clause.”

Dissenting, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote:

The Court today decides, in effect, that a State may constitutionally vary the quality of education which it offers its children in accordance with the amount of taxable wealth located in the school districts within which they reside. The majority’s decision represents an abrupt departure from the mainstream of recent state and federal court decisions concerning the unconstitutionality of state educational financing schemes dependent upon taxable local wealth. More unfortunately, though, the   majority’s holding can only be seen as a retreat from our historic commitment to equality of educational opportunity and as unsupportable acquiescence in a system which deprives children in their earliest years of the chance to reach their full potential as citizens. The Court does this despite the absence of any substantial justification for a scheme which arbitrarily channels educational resources in accordance with the fortuity of the amount of taxable wealth within each district.

. . .

I must once more voice my disagreement with the Court’s rigidified approach to equal protection analysis.”

Portrait of Supreme Court Thurgood Marshall (Photo by Bachrach/Getty Images)

Portrait of Supreme Court Thurgood Marshall (Photo by Bachrach/Getty Images)

Justices Brennan, Douglas, and White also dissented.

As law professor Camille Walsh argued in her analysis of the case [Camille Walsh, “Erasing Race, Dismissing Class: San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez,” 21 La Raza L.J. (2011):

The Rodriguez claimants were low-income children and families of color whose school district was dramatically unequal in every respect when compared to the local, wealthy, white school district at issue in the case. The Court treated, however, the claims of race and class discrimination that the claimants put forward as entirely independent, and ignored the plaintiffs race claim in order to focus on class alone, which the Court dismissed as a category not entitled to constitutional protection. This article argues that the outcome in Rodriguez was directly tied to legal frameworks that negated the possibility of protecting more than one constitutional category at the same time. The Court’s decision provided an economic privacy and local fiscal control rationale that solidified the separation of race and class as categories of constitutional analysis, to the detriment of future claims at the intersection of race and class remedies for segregated and unequal schools.”

In the four decades since Rodriguez, as NPR observes, dozens of lawsuits have been filed in state courts, arguing that their funding systems are either unfair, inadequate or both.

Of note, in the 2011 case Lynch, et al. v. State of Alabama, et al. Judge C Lynwood Smith, Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama wrote an 800-page opinion, in which he “excoriated Alabama’s funding system.” Still, as reported by NPR, “he found the plaintiffs were not entitled to relief from the court,” writing in his opinion:

This request for a remedy untethered to a constitutional violation, though sincere, misunderstands the nature of the judicial power. The courts are not empowered generally to ‘make things right.’ The district court’s jurisdiction was invoked by plaintiffs to recognize and remedy the constitutional wrongs alleged to exist in Alabama’s system of higher education. [emphasis in original.]

(According to The Southern Poverty Law Center, Alabama’s overall funding level is well below average, ranking 38 out of 49, even when adjusting for regional wages, economies of scale, and other factors.)

You can read more about the NPR series here, and follow along with new reports in the coming weeks.


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