The Alarming Truth About the U.S. Education System: School Funding & Poverty

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Education is incredibly important. It’s a universal tool that can foster political and economic growth, as well as personal success. Unfortunately, access to a quality education is not available for all. School funding is inconsistent and as you can presume, impoverished communities suffer the most. 

There are a number of issues we can discuss in regards to our broken education system here in the U.S. It can bleed into a number of different topics including racial and gender prejudice, poverty, the lack of women in STEM/STEAM related programs, bullying, etc.,  but we are focusing specifically on how disproportionate school funding is nation-wide. 

Allow me to break this down for you.

This TED Talk opens up the conversation. I suggest listening to Kandice Sumner’s presentation before continuing on. 

Now, then. Let’s discuss some of the basics. 

Funding for education in the United States comes from local, state and federal sources, but over 50% of the funding is determined on a very local level. Under the U.S. Constitution, the states are primarily responsible for their state-wide K-12 academic curriculum.  Local property taxes often fund the schools residing in their area, so wealthier towns or cities with more expensive properties often provide more substantial funding for their schools. Basically, school quality and its funding are induced by income. 

Before the 19th century, schools were afforded by voluntary contributions. When it was decided that local property taxes would fund the schools, it was advantageous because everyone lived a similar quality of life. Time passed, and people began relocating. They moved to big cities, and eventually to prosperous suburbs after some financial triumphs.  

These wealthier, affluent families living in the suburbs were funding their already adequate local schools with their property taxes. Based on how the system operates, no one was willing to contribute anymore to assist impoverished schools in nearby communities (Biddle and Berliner). Therefore, the system is broken and a bit silly.

Social conflict theory argues that conflict arises when resources, status and power are unevenly distributed. How does this relate to education in the United States? 

Well, there are class gaps in educational attainment. Students in higher income, richer neighborhoods are more likely to enroll in university post-graduation than students in lower income communities. One reason for this (out of many) is because wealthier neighborhoods can afford to fund better quality schools. As stated earlier, the city or town is responsible for the funding for the schools in their area.  

Wealthier parents also tend to have more time to devote to their students’ educational needs. Students need to be supported, especially through school. If the mundane essential tasks we take for granted, such as personal hygiene and access to food, is a struggle for a student, how can we expect them to prioritize the frivolous tasks of school? The expectations of a student may also differ should one of their parents hold a college degree. One can assume a second-generation student will attend college over a hopeful first-generation. 

As a first-generation college graduate, I can identify with how overwhelming and discouraging the college application and FAFSA processes can be. My parents were reliant on me to gather as much information as possible so I could educate them. Thankfully, my mother was pretty adaptable to the systems and served incredibly useful in the process. Unlike my other first-generation peers, only one of my parents was an immigrant from a non-English-speaking country. My dad was not needed in my application processes essentially, because I had my mother. Some of my other colleagues had to translate documentation if they required assistance from their parents. Some had to rely on school faculty alone.  Fortunately, I attended a school with a comprehensive introduction to the college application process, and attentive academic counselors. 

Lower-income communities are at risk to standards of poverty. If certain counties, towns or cities dismiss the necessity for education funding in their region, they are choosing to diminish students’ chances at safety, stability, opportunity and success. Schools keep kids off the street. 

Marginalized groups, however, are more inclined to being suspended or expelled from school, which increases the chances of those students partaking in riskier, criminal activity on the streets. Minority students are more likely to be expelled or suspended than white students ( They are also less likely to be considered for gifted, academic advancement programs at school by a white educator, but I digress). Prejudicial behavior in education so closely associates to our conversations of funding and poverty, but wish to isolate them for now. 

Impoverished communities are more likely to suffer from the School-to-Prison Pipeline, which is a tracking system of students that criminalizes deviant or abnormal behavior of students. For example, a minority student is more inclined to receive more severe disciplinary measures for minor infractions, such as talking back to teachers. This can involve premature introductions to the criminal justice system. This is demoralizing and discouraging for students. 

It is the responsibility of an educator to promote inclusivity, confidence and a dedication to learning. Racial, gender, religious, ethnic bias should not influence the narrative of a young child.

 Ask yourself:

  • What fields have an unequal ratio of men to women? Why is that?
  • What fields have an unequal ratio of African Americans to Caucasians? Why is that?

To qualify for federal funding for a local education, a school needs to attain a certain percentage of passing students on national assessment. This is heavily debated as many teachers are forced to teach for the exam rather than the topic itself. If students don’t perform well on standardized tests, they can be exempt from consideration of advanced placement, grants, etc. 

Some schools will label minority students who don’t traditionally perform well at standardized tests as “disabled” to be exempt for the general population to be considered for the passing rate. This kind of tracking contributes to racial gaps in education. If non-disabled students are barred from the same resources and support their peers receive, they will never prosper or improve the same way their peers do. The curriculum is adjusted for those who have a legitimate learning disability; we all know this. 

Now, I am contradicting myself slightly to briefly discuss how poverty relates. It’s difficult not to touch base with a number of other system issues that derived from a defective education system!

If you are considered part of the Lower Class, you are most likely going to live in a lower income community, an impoverished community with poor school districts. Living in poverty as a child makes it difficult to prioritize school. Children who live in poverty are more inclined to suffer from a learning disability.  Students ages 16-24 years old are seven times more likely to dropout of school. 31% of dropouts live in poverty while only 24% of graduates live in poverty. 

For years, there have been dated studies and debates over the reasons behind poverty in the United States, and the demographics they affect the most. Some have supported the ideology of individualism, suggesting that it is the individual’s responsibility to pull themselves out of poverty. In recent years, we have accounts, research and studies that counteract such a statement. There are systematic flaws in our system that prohibits marginalized groups from entering a new social class and receiving opportunities. This oppression stems from a young age, and the funding of education in the U.S. is a prime example of that.

Now what?

I’ve demolished a singular aspect of the United States education system among many. You might feel raw, numb and bit uncertain.  No worries! Here are some ways you can help!

Sources

Biddle, Bruce J. J., and David C. Berliner. “A Research Synthesis / Unequal School Funding in the United States.” ASCD, ASCD, 2020, www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/may02/vol59/num08/Unequal-School-Funding-in-the-United-States.aspx.

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