Why Arne Duncan is Right on Equity in School Funding

United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan delivered a speech at the National Press Club on September 30th that should serve as a powerful call for the country to make a massive shift in the allocation of funding for prisons and schools. Duncan pointed out that spending on the state and local correctional system has gone up twice as much as spending on K-12 education over the last three decades in the United States. It is important to note that the onus is largely on state and local leaders to change the direction of those expenditures from the prison system to the education system as approximately 90 percent of funding for elementary and secondary education come from those levels. The federal government can, however, play a key role in incentivizing states to move in this direction. It will be crucial for activists and educational stakeholders to push for federal and state action in the form of policy changes that will facilitate a much needed change in resource allocation.

Duncan cited some of the links between education and incarceration in his remarks like the statistic that Black males who are between the ages of 20 and 24 and lack a high school diploma or GED have a higher chance of being behind bars than employed and the fact that high school dropouts make up more than two thirds of the inmates in state prisons. Duncan's lamentation on the disproportionate number of people of color who are incarcerated echoes the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates in his recent piece entitled "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration" where he asserted that "as incarceration rates rose and prison terms became longer, the idea of rehabilitation was mostly abandoned in favor of incapacitation."

The meat of Duncan's remarks was the claim of a savings of around $15 billion dollars a year if states and localities utilize alternative strategies other than incarceration for half of the people convicted of nonviolent offenses. Duncan asserted that "if they reinvested that money into paying the teachers who are working in our highest-need schools and communities -- they could provide a 50 percent average salary increase to every single one of them. Specifically, if you focused on the 20 percent of schools with the highest poverty rates in each state, that would give you 17,640 schools -- and the money would go far enough to increase salaries by at least 50 percent."

This potential infusion of funding would go a long way towards getting the best teachers in front of the students who face some of the toughest life obstacles. The closing of the achievement gap has long been the aim of a great deal of education policy endeavors at the federal, state, and local level. The most significant factor in student achievement is arguably the quality of the teacher that is in the classroom. Given this, the recruitment and retention of highly effective teachers in schools with the highest number of impoverished students would logically be one of the key areas of focus.

Though Duncan's proposal is not likely to gain traction in the short term it is an important agenda setting move that activists and proponents should seek to amplify. Duncan also highlighted the $8,000 difference in per pupil expenditure between Missouri's Ferguson-Florissant School District and a neighboring one in Clayton as an example of the inequities that prevent students from getting a fair start. The gross disparities in school funding are a civil rights issue that should be at the forefront of the upcoming 2016 local, state, and national elections.

Earlier this year the Washington Post reported that poorer school districts get lesser funding than richer districts in 23 states. In Pennsylvania the differential is more than 33 percent. In many cases, Title I funding that was meant to complement state and local aid for the neediest schools has been used to supplement funding that should have been provided to schools from state and local funding sources.

Wade Henderson, President of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, pointed to the 1973 Supreme Court case San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez as a primary obstacle for those who seek to challenge school funding disparities. In the case, the Court ruled that "it was legal to base state funding formulas on local property taxes, even though doing so resulted in unequal resources. The court also ruled that there is no federal constitutional right to an education."

Elected officials at the state level like Florida State Senator Dwight Bullard and his allies in the Florida Legislature are championing efforts to bolster funding for education but partisan gridlock in that chamber and many others across the country have created barriers to advancing educational funding equity. States like Florida that continue to have rising levels of population must continue to push for opportunities that allow for better training and equipping of students for a myriad of careers through stronger educational preparation.

Congress should consider finding ways to incentivize states to address funding disparities in addition to heeding Duncan's call to redirect funding that are currently being spent on the prison industry. Language like that of the "Opportunity Dashboard of Core Resources Amendment" should be added to any Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization conference bill. States should be required to identify and address funding disparities and resource gaps. Federal resources should be withheld until states develop plans with timelines and benchmarks to make sure that students with the highest need get the resources that they deserve.

To Duncan's credit, he has campaigned hard to slow down the right wing push to make Title I funds portable in the congressional effort to reauthorize ESEA. The Title I portability provision did not make it into the Senate reauthorization bill (The Every Child Achieves Act of 2015) but it is in the version that passed the House of Representatives (The Student Success Act). It remains to be seen if this provision will be included in a potential compromise bill. Title I portability would go in direct contradiction to the original intent of Title I by transferring resources from schools and districts with high concentrations of poverty to more affluent districts and schools.

As Congressional leaders deliberate on the reauthorization of ESEA, it is my hope that they will consider including plans to remedy disparities in access to critical educational resources. The belief that every child has the opportunity to achieve should be upheld in this process and schools should be given sufficient funding to accomplish these goals. We must put pressure on members of the conference committee to ensure that the bill stays true to its original purpose as of providing aid to predominately low-income schools. We as a nation should heed Secretary Duncan's clarion call to redirect funds that have been used to build and sustain the prison industrial complex and transfer those resources to go towards improving educational equity for our nation's most needy schools. Pushing states to adopt these measures and to take affirmative steps to close funding gaps between schools is a challenge that the modern day civil rights movement must address head on. Our country's future depends on it.

Marcus Bright, Ph.D. is a political and social commentator.