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W. Kamau Bell: What will the new school year look like? Start with unequal

The answer to that question will depend on where you live — and not just because that determines what state rules and regulations will apply.

The ratio of how much federal, state and local money is used varies across the country. But according to the National Center for Education Statistics, an average of 45% of public school funding across the US comes from local sources — and mainly from property taxes.
You can of course already see how this leads to inequity. If your public school is located a block from Jeff Bezos‘ house, his property taxes alone are going to give that school the best of everything — and probably some new things that aren’t even on the market yet.

But if your public school is located a block from subsidized housing – unless that subsidized housing is the White House – your school will not have the best of everything. As Anthony Abraham Jack, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, explained to me, “To understand where students are going, you have to know where they come from. … A zip code can tell you so much more about where a child is going to end up than any other fact that you can learn about that child.”

Teachers and students shouldn't be Covid-19 experiments in the fall

And that was before Covid-19. So while all public schools are working hard to figure out how to respond to the pandemic, unequal funding means there will be very different levels of what that response looks like.

I saw how this reality affects students even before the pandemic hit. Last fall, I spent time in southeastern Ohio, visiting Mayfair Elementary and Shaw High School in East Cleveland, as well as Shaker High School in Shaker Heights, for tonight’s episode of “United Shades of America.”
The impact of leaning primarily on state and local funding is clear when you look at Shaw High School in the predominantly Black and overwhelmingly economically depressed city of East Cleveland, and then take the short drive to Shaker High in the racially mixed but economically doing-much-better city of Shaker Heights.

While Shaw is “hacking the system” by teaching career and tech courses that can give students the opportunity to make adult wages as nursing assistants and hair stylists, over at Shaker Heights students are encouraged to spend their after-school time with activities that would make a well-rounded college application — including a video game club. A VIDEO GAME CLUB!!! Although nothing says, “We are doing all right financially!” more than a school with a planetarium. Shaker has that too.

I don’t want to imply that Shaker is a perfect high school; money doesn’t fix everything. The US has liberally sprinkled racism all over our society, which helps create a gap in achievement between Black and White students that remains no matter how much cash you drop on it.
The Glossary of Education Reform defines the achievement gap as “any significant and persistent disparity in academic performance or educational attainment between different groups of students, such as white students and minorities, for example, or students from higher-income and lower-income households.” The same achievement gap that Black students deal with at Shaw, the Black students deal with at Shaker; it is just a deeper and more profound gap at the school with fewer resources.
And for those of you who read this and say, “Why should my taxes have to pay for public schools? I don’t even have kids,” consider these questions from veteran Shaw High School teacher Monique Davis.

“If we don’t educate our younger generation, then what does that generation become?” she said to me during filming for “United Shades of America.” “Because if you don’t have an education, what do you do for income? What do you do for housing? What do you do to maintain a life?”

To me, it feels like we shouldn’t have this disparity for the millions of students enrolled in public schools across the country. If parents want to fund their kids’ local institution, that’s fine — but that shouldn’t make the difference between having a good school and a bad one, and definitely not in the middle of a pandemic.


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