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No More School Districts!

At the root of educational inequality: the rich and poor districts that keep education segregated. Here are the three reforms we need.

By Kevin Carey

Tagged EducationSchool Districts

To truly understand what’s wrong with Piedmont Unified School District, in the hills a few miles from San Francisco Bay, you have to pull up from a municipality so wealthy that it was dubbed the City of Millionaires in the Roaring ‘20s, up high enough to notice that after the district border ambles along Park Boulevard and then moves counterclockwise to encompass the mansions and art centers and swimming pools, it finally returns to exactly where it started. Piedmont school district looks like an island. Specifically, an island of rich white people sitting above, and entirely surrounded by, the much larger district of mostly not-rich and not-white people in Oakland, California.

Then you need to look at the long history of how much money Piedmont raises every year in local property taxes: thousands more for each student than is raised in Oakland. See how those numbers jump back up in the Berkeley school district to the north, home of the famous university, and drop back down in San Leandro, a racially diverse community to the south. Put the numbers and the maps together and you realize that Piedmont isn’t an island after all. It’s a fortress. A place where the wealthy and powerful huddle to keep their resources for themselves.

Piedmont’s negative image is in Reading, Pennsylvania, a worn-down city of nonmillionaires that emerged from the last decennial census with the single highest poverty rate in America. The wealthier, whiter areas surrounding Reading are split into seven districts instead of one, but the effect is the same: Reading students, who are 93 percent nonwhite and 31 percent below the federal poverty line, get $5,000 less per year than those in neighboring Schuylkill, which is 86 percent white and 5 percent poor. Reading isn’t an island, either. It’s a prison. A place designed to keep the poor in their place.

The whole of American education works this way. Our nation has been chopped to pieces by tens of thousands of borders that citizens are forbidden to cross under threat of incarceration—parents who enroll their children in nearby districts face fines and even jail. The walls have been there for so long that people largely just accept them as an unalterable part of the landscape, like cliffs and rivers that can be built around and occasionally bridged at great expense, but never truly changed.

For the better part of the last century, activists and policymakers have been trying to build a more just and effective system of public schooling. Their efforts have been laudable, often heroic, and have produced many lasting benefits. But they have also fallen far short of their own ambitions. American education today remains segregated and unequal, with millions of students, disproportionately poor and of color, failing to learn what they need to know.

As a result, K-12 education has fallen by the wayside as a priority for progressive leaders. In a wide-open primary for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, candidates have put forth astonishingly ambitious proposals to reshape health care, higher education, environmental protection, financial regulation, early childhood, and much more. Yet their K-12 proposals have been largely perfunctory—reasonable-enough plans to spend more money on existing programs and systems without changing the underlying structure in any meaningful way. Only Senator Elizabeth Warren’s plan begins to tackle the underlying structures of discrimination, and even it does not go nearly far enough.

It’s time for the next generation of policymakers to see K-12 school districts as a corrupt system that needs to be ripped out, root and branch.

American schoolchildren deserve more. It’s time for the next generation of activists and policymakers to see K-12 school districts in the same way that they see extraction-based energy production, employer-provided health insurance, and loan-financed college: as a corrupt and irredeemable system that needs to be ripped out, root and branch, and replaced with something better.

This is the case against school districts, and what to build in their place.

How School Districts Came To Be

The U.S. Constitution does not include the word “education,” an omission that led to significant later confusion. But national investment in public schooling actually predates the republic. The Land Act of 1785 was designed to guide and encourage settlement of the continent. Settlers wanted to be sure they would have access to critical public services, including education. So when the Act created a standard six-mile-by-six-mile township for new settlements, divided into 36 sections, it set aside the sixteenth section, near the center, to support public schools. Congress further emphasized the importance of school two years later, in the Northwest Ordinance. That law said, “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

The eighteenth-century logistics of time and distance are important, because they shaped everything that followed. The economy was overwhelmingly agricultural then. People came to America from Europe so they could have their own land to farm. Rather than replicate the cramped old country life of villages near small tenant farms, American settlers claimed larger parcels that were, by definition, farther away from one another. Then as now, their children needed to travel to school and back home again in a single day. So while income from sixteenth section lands was used to support education, townships often built multiple schools, almost all one-room, within child-walking distance of farms.

There was, unfortunately, a flaw in the system. Sometimes the sixteenth section would happen to encompass rich, productive land, sufficient to fund the schools. But sometimes it would fall on a pile of rocks or a swamp. Lawmakers responded in a way that made some sense at the time, but would have far-reaching consequences. They allowed schools to charge parents tuition for extra education, and they allowed sub-sections around one-room schools to raise additional property tax funds. Because it advantaged wealthy communities, Horace Mann, the strongest claimant to being father of American public education, called a 1789 Massachusetts version of such a policy a “most unfortunate law.”

Mann and others set about to reform these systems by abolishing tuition and moving toward integrated, grade-level education. They were, in many ways, incredibly successful. Relatively quickly, every state adopted constitutional language resonant of the Northwest Ordinance, supposedly guaranteeing all children access to free public schools.

But in the creation of those first, small taxing districts, the foundations of school district walls had been laid, and they would prove remarkably difficult to remove. The pure visions of free state-supported public education embodied in state constitutions were often contradicted by facts on the ground. Namely, that much of the country was still agricultural and thus chained to the time-and-travel logistics of one-room schools; that state legislatures did not actually want to spend the money necessary to provide universal education; and that “universal” didn’t apply to, among others, enslaved people and their descendants.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw industrial revolution and waves of immigration flow into ports, cities, and towns. America took on the prodigious task of educating all those new entrants and became the first country to make high-school graduation the standard expectation for most students. At their best, public schools were engines of assimilation and shared opportunity, evolving into systems of age-graded elementary, middle, and secondary schools that prepared students for work and college. The one-room schoolhouse became obsolete.

But as late as the beginning of World War II, there were still almost 120,000 separate school districts serving about 25 million students. What followed was a period of massive district consolidation. The number of districts plummeted to 84,000 by 1950, 40,000 by 1960, and 18,000 by 1970. The way consolidation happened was crucial. The process was generally unguided by egalitarian ideals. Instead, districts merged when it suited their self-interest. Rich districts were generally open to consolidation with neighboring districts that had similar wealth and demographics, and not to those that did not. Places like Piedmont stuck with their fortresses of money and privilege because why do anything else?

That was the pattern in the Northeast, Midwest, and part of the West. The South was different. The present-day map of roughly 14,000 school districts is striking in that there is a clear pattern that exactly follows the Mason-Dixon line. Above it, there are thousands of geographically small school districts—500 in Pennsylvania, 620 in Ohio, 294 in Indiana, 854 in Illinois. Below it, there are far fewer, because Southern districts are contiguous with Southern counties. Florida, the third-most populous state and one of the largest geographically east of the Mississippi, has only 67 districts.

As Dartmouth economist William Fischel has argued, this happened for the obvious reason: racism. After the Civil War, many black communities in the South were big enough to create, in theory, black-governed school districts. The overriding goal of the white power structure was to continue slavery by other means: violence, terrorism, and denial of legal rights and services, including education. So education authority was consolidated up to white-controlled counties. In the first half of the twentieth century, after Plessy v. Ferguson, Southern states had to at least make a show of providing separate schools for black children. That meant districts big and dense enough to simultaneously support two segregated school systems. This, too, required county-level geographic size.

In the Northern states, by contrast, segregation was being prosecuted via redlining, federal housing policy, white flight, and many other forms of institutional racism that, while not quite as overt as Southern segregation, had similar effects. When the great school district consolidation wrapped up in the early 1970s—leaving the district maps that we still, for the most part, have today—many metro areas had evolved into deeply segregated central city districts surrounded by wealthier, whiter, suburban schools. Similar patterns existed, with different racial and economic admixtures, nationwide. About 120,000 districts riven by class and race had consolidated into 15,000 districts divided on the same lines. States had gradually pumped more funding into their school systems, to the point where the average district received as much funding from state appropriations as from local property taxes. But the state money was seldom enough to make up the difference between rich and poor.

The resulting massive inequality and deep segregation shocked the conscience. And so, building on the great victory of Brown v. Board, civil rights leaders brought two cases to the Supreme Court. They lost them both, in ways that fatally narrowed the grounds for education reform.

Supreme Court to Poor Districts: Drop Dead

The first case was filed in 1968 on behalf of students living in Edgewood Independent School District, on the west side of San Antonio. For decades, the city had systematically discriminated against Mexican Americans. In wealthy Alamo Heights, on the north side of town, housing covenants barred any “race or nationality other than the Caucasian race” from owning homes. Federal housing policies used redlining to further the same goal. Having limited Hispanic citizens to one place, the city then denied that place basic water and sewer services, leading to devastating outbreaks of tuberculosis. Economic development lagged and the housing stock lost value. Public housing projects didn’t pay taxes. There was therefore little property tax revenue for public schools.

Edgewood tried to solve this problem by joining the wave of school district consolidation. It failed. As far back as 1921, the Texas state school superintendent declared that “the principal obstacles to school consolidation are to be found in local prejudices, local jealousies, and real estate considerations.” By 1947, Texas still had 4,500 districts, and the state pushed for more mergers. But Edgewood was poor, indebted, and in the Hispanic part of town. By 1968, it was still alone. That year, a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights investigation found that Edgewood students, 90 percent of whom were Mexican American, were routinely beaten by teachers and administrators for speaking Spanish.

Their attorneys had reason for optimism. The year before their case was filed, Brown’s lead attorney, Thurgood Marshall, became the Supreme Court’s first African-American justice. But by the time the lawsuit made its way through the system, Richard Nixon had been elected President and had appointed four new justices. They wanted to stop what Marshall had started.

San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez was decided in March 1973. The facts weren’t in dispute: Edgewood had the highest property tax rate in the city, but because it had little wealth to tax, it raised only $26 per student. Alamo Heights, with a lower rate ($0.85 per $100 of property valuation, compared to $1.05 in Edgewood) raised $333 per student. State funding didn’t come close to making up the difference. In fact, Alamo Heights, got more money from the state than Edgewood, because Alamo Heights was able to attract more experienced and better educated teachers, which guaranteed them higher salaries, producing more revenue from the state formula.

The system was, the majority conceded, “chaotic and unjust.” The justices just didn’t care. They believed that students living in property-poor districts weren’t a legally protected class in the same way as the students of color in Brown—even though nearly all of the property-poor Edgewood students were of color. Yes, of course, public education is of “grave significance” and plays a “vital role” in our free society, the court said. But it’s not mentioned in the Constitution, and if we guarantee all children an equal education, what’s to stop them for asking for things like “the basics of decent food and shelter”? Plus, will better-funded schools really help all of those Mexican-American children? Experts disagree.

In a 5-to-4 vote, the court decided that rich school districts could keep all of the money they had hoarded behind district walls, even if the walls were deliberately built to keep out low-income and minority children.

That still left another option. By the early 1970s, some cities were using bussing programs to promote school integration. Minority children were often sent to majority-white schools with more resources. In other words, if money couldn’t be brought to the students, students could be brought to the money. A year after Rodriguez, the same five justices struck that idea down, too.

Building on Brown v. Board, civil rights leaders brought two cases to the Supreme Court. They lost both, in ways fatal to education reform.

The students in Milliken v. Bradley were mostly black instead of Hispanic and lived in Detroit instead of San Antonio, but otherwise the facts were depressingly similar: decades of redlining, restrictive housing covenants, and structural racism had created a deeply segregated and viciously unequal school system in greater Detroit. Black families were systematically excluded from neighboring suburbs like Grosse Pointe and its affluent schools.

In 1968, three weeks before his assassination, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech at Grosse Pointe High School. As white protestors jeered, King said,

Every city in our country has this kind of dualism, this schizophrenia, split at so many parts, and so every city ends up being two cities rather than one. There are two Americas . . . In this other America, thousands of young people are deprived of an opportunity to get an adequate education. Every year thousands finish high school reading at a seventh-, eighth- and sometimes ninth-grade level. Not because they’re dumb, not because they don’t have the native intelligence, but because the schools are so inadequate, so overcrowded, so devoid of quality, so segregated if you will, that the best in these minds can never come out.

In 1970, the NAACP filed suit. A federal judge ruled that, given the degree of segregation between the Detroit district and others, the only way to desegregate was to move students throughout the greater metro area, between districts. “School district lines,” he wrote, “may not be used to deny constitutional rights.”

The five-justice Supreme Court majority disagreed. It once again conceded a host of damning facts about inequality, segregation, and racial discrimination. But because the school district lines had not been explicitly drawn for racist reasons, the court ruled, they were inviolate. Because the neighboring majority-white districts—in the specific sense of the people running them—were not responsible for the Federal Housing Administration redlining and the real estate eligibility “point system” that gave 100 points to “Anglo-Saxons” and “Scandinavians,” 85 to “Jews,” 55 to “Poles,” and zero to “Negroes and Orientals,” those districts could not be obligated to help right those wrongs.

Thurgood Marshall was 66 years old when Milliken v. Bradley was decided, a hero and an icon at the height of his wisdom and intellectual powers. In the space of little more than a year, he had to watch his fellow justices destroy much of his life’s work. Marshall understood exactly what was at stake and was unsparing in dissent. There is a restrained fury in his dismantling of the Rodriguez decision—the idea that the Edgewood students were best left to the same political forces that had deliberately conspired against them. That “equal protection” somehow only meant arguably minimally good enough, and not “equal.” That there was some doubt about the value of money in education, despite the strenuous efforts by rich districts to keep all of their money. In Brown, Marshall noted, the court held that education “is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” Rodriguez broke that promise, fundamentally. The decision required enormous deference to the principle of “local control” in education. But the issue at hand, huge disparities in local property tax wealth, was one over which school officials had no control at all.

Milliken was even worse. Justice Douglas put it plainly. “Today’s decision, given Rodriguez, means that there is no violation of the Equal Protection Clause though the schools are segregated by race and though the black schools are not only ‘separate’ but ‘inferior.’” Marshall called the decision “a giant step backwards” and an “emasculation” of the Fourteenth Amendment. The state had done nothing, Marshall noted, when school officials deliberately bussed black students away from nearby white schools. The claim that school district boundaries were sacrosanct was a farce—like other states, Michigan had reduced the number of districts ten-fold in previous decades, erasing thousands of boundary lines. Indisputably, “Negro children in Detroit had been confined by intentional acts of segregation to a growing core of Negro schools surrounded by a receding ring of white schools.” He was right to put it that way. The only difference between a fortress and a prison is which side of the walls the guards are standing on.

Marshall saw the future clearly. “School district lines, however innocently drawn, will surely be perceived as fences to separate the races,” he wrote. “In the short run, it may seem to be the easier course to allow our great metropolitan areas to be divided up each into two cities—one white, the other black—but it is a course, I predict, our people will ultimately regret.”

Everything Thurgood Marshall feared came true. Detroit Public Schools have been perpetually wracked by crisis and decay. The wealth disparity along the Grosse Pointe border is so stark you can see it through Google’s satellite images—on one side of Alter Road, dense and prosperous neighborhoods, on the other, hundreds of vacant lots. Meanwhile, in San Antonio, the Alamo Heights school district today receives more than $19,000 per student in state and local funds. Most of its students are white. Edgewood, still alone, gets less than $10,000. Ninety-seven percent of its students are Hispanic. The bigots who wrote the restrictive covenants into Alamo Heights property deeds all those decades ago were fighting a war for power and opportunity in the coming century. They won.

Since, the ’80s: Going Backwards Fast

Looking back, the early 1970s was the moment when American education turned most decisively toward the path on which it remains today. Together, Rodriguez and Milliken were like the so-called Compromise of 1877, a devastating capitulation to white supremacy. School district consolidation slowed to a crawl. Desegregation leveled off and then reversed. The percent of black children attending schools with a 90 percent black population began increasing in the 1980s and continued to grow.

In a number of states, legal strategists turned to the education clauses in state constitutions that Horace Mann and his allies had pushed for in the nineteenth century. Many state lawmakers didn’t like being held accountable for obligations like a “uniform system of free common schools,” and they fought back. Sometimes the plaintiffs won, and school funding systems were overhauled in ways that mitigated or erased property-based wealth disparities between districts. Sometimes the plaintiffs lost, and the unfair system remained. Sometimes the plaintiffs won, but the legislature defied the courts, and the unfair system remained.

Funding disparities between districts were compounded by even larger disparities between states, which vary greatly in wealth—per capita income in Connecticut is roughly double that of Mississippi. President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program included new federal funds for high-poverty schools. But federal funding would only ever be a small portion—usually less than 10 percent—of K-12 funding. It was never close to enough to give students in poor states and districts an equal opportunity.

Bussing, meanwhile, became widely seen as a cautionary tale of pushing white voters too far. Joe Biden, who began his career as a liberal advocate of desegregation, reacted to widespread discontent among white voters by becoming a staunch opponent of court-ordered bussing. Many other politicians followed similar paths.

The next big moment in public education came nine years after Milliken, with the 1983 “A Nation at Risk” report from Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education, Terrel Bell. The report’s apocalyptic language struck a nerve with a public anxious about economic and geopolitical threats like Japan and the Soviet Union. Public schools were being eroded by a “rising tide of mediocrity,” the report said. “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

In response, in the late 1980s, a bipartisan group of governors pushed a policy framework that would dominate the next 30 years of education policy: standards, testing, and accountability. The drive for educational standards reflected another deep flaw in the decentralized American school system. In addition to paying for themselves, all of those tens of thousands of small local school districts had been left to make their own decisions about what children should learn, how they should be taught, and how much learning was good enough.

Often, they chose badly. Or even if their choices were defensible, they were different and uncoordinated, a huge problem in an increasingly interconnected society. By giving all schoolchildren the same test, aligned to the standards, and publishing the results, policymakers could see which schools and students were falling short. Then schools and districts were held “accountable” through a combination of sticks and carrots to motivate performance and regulatory interventions when performance fell short.

The accountability regimes, particularly those implemented under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, were never as onerous as media coverage suggested. But NCLB became wildly unpopular anyway, because the whole idea of accountability struck many people, especially teachers, as fundamentally unfair. Accountability systems require consent and legitimacy. If the people being held accountable think the terms are unreasonable, the system won’t work. And many people did think that, for a very good reason: The accountability regime was draped on top of the grossly inequitable system of local finance and impermeable district boundaries that the Supreme Court ratified in Rodriguez and Milliken. Educators in underfunded states and districts serving economically and socially isolated communities were told that they ultimately had to meet the same performance standards as educators sitting inside the money fortress up on the hill. It seemed wrong, and it was.

Meanwhile, the school district system was having a secondary and, in many ways, even more profound effect on American society. The early 1970s also marked the end of the post-World War II era of shared prosperity. From 1948 to 1973, economic productivity and worker’s compensation rose in virtual lockstep, nearly doubling in real terms. But then things changed—drastically. Inflation and deindustrialization both hit hard in the 1970s, and from 1974 to the present day, productivity continued climbing while wages flattened out. The difference went into the pockets of the rich. In 1963, the top 1 percent of households had about $1.5 million in today’s dollars. By 2016 their wealth had grown to $10.4 million. At the same time, wealth in the bottom 10 percent declined.

The rich used the money to get all the stuff rich people like to buy. Most of those things—cars, clothes, jewelry, bigger houses—you can get anywhere. There was one major exception: schools. Specifically, “good” schools, i.e. expensive schools full of other rich people. There were pricey private schools in a few places. But for most people on the fortunate side of the great economic schism, the only way to buy a good school was to walk up the hill and purchase property inside the walls. That, in turn, concentrated social and financial capital among the children of privilege, who took it with them into college and the workplace, met and married one another, and started families of their own, duly enrolling their students in expensive school districts and starting the cycle all over again.

This was harder to do in the South, with its county-wide districts, some of which used the lack of internal divisions to implement admirable desegregation policies. Jefferson County, Kentucky, for example, educates almost 100,000 K-12 students, including those in the city of Louisville. The district deliberately manages a system of school assignment and parental choice to maintain school-level racial and economic diversity in a district that is 46 percent white and 37 percent black. The system has been in place for decades and enjoys strong public support.

But in a number of Southern jurisdictions, white people turned to an idea that still runs hot in their blood: secession. Since 2000, more than 100 communities have tried to secede into new districts, most successfully. And they aren’t shy about why. The mayor of majority-white Gardendale, Alabama explained, “It’s keeping our tax dollars here with our kids, rather than sharing them with kids all over Jefferson County.”

A recent study of district secession by Kendra Taylor, Erica Frankenberg, and Genevieve Siegel-Hawley found that it works: Racial segregation increased after the new districts were formed. That was true both for where students go to school and for where people with and without school-age children reside. The causality is important. School segregation is often dismissed as an unavoidable consequence of where people choose to live. The research suggests school district boundaries are the reason people choose where to live. Even white people who didn’t have children were attracted to living in the new, racially defined districts.

The non-profit group EdBuild found that there are nearly 1,000 district borders in America where the difference in per-student funding is greater than 10 percent and the difference in the percent of nonwhite students is greater than 25 percent, producing an average disparity of $4,207 per student. With that much money at stake, plus the force multiplier of social capital, district lines are protected with the full force of the law. Schools hire private detectives and set up anonymous tip lines to ferret out families who live in one district and send their children to school in another. Violators can face hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties and felony charges, even prison time.

America’s social and economic vitality has long benefitted from our commitment to openness—no tariffs on goods crossing state lines, no limits on where citizens are allowed to travel and roam. Somehow, the most violently contested borders in our entire society, at least until Donald Trump started caging children, have been erected to prevent children from going to school.

The Three Reforms We Need

The current school district system needs to be replaced. Three policies will get us there: Redistricting, National Funding, and Decriminalization.

Redistricting

In his dissent in Milliken, Thurgood Marshall noted that there was already plenty of precedent for requiring states to change local boundaries. Less than a decade before, the Court had required states to redraw their voting districts to ensure equal representation. The Court has long recognized that racist gerrymandering is unconstitutional. Even the current conservative Court believes this, unanimously ruling against a racially motivated North Carolina apportionment in 2017.
Marshall went on to suggest a solution:

Local autonomy over school affairs, in the sense of the community’s participation in the decisions affecting the education of its children, is, of course, an important interest. But presently constituted school district lines do not delimit fixed and unchangeable areas of a local educational community. If restructuring is required to meet constitutional requirements, local authority may simply be redefined in terms of whatever configuration is adopted, with the parents of the children attending schools in the newly demarcated district or attendance zone continuing their participation in the policy management of the schools with which they are concerned most directly.

In other words, school redistricting.
States should be required to redraw their school district boundaries every ten years, following the Census, just as they redraw their congressional districts. There’s plenty of precedent for how to accomplish this administratively in the past waves of consolidation and (ironically) the current trend of secession. The boundaries should be determined by a bipartisan commission and be drawn to maximize racial and economic integration. The commissions should make districts big enough to achieve administrative economies of scale, freeing up resources for teaching and learning, and to allow for school-level desegregation policies like those in Jefferson County, Kentucky.

Some people would find themselves voting for a new school board and living in a new school district, both completely normal everyday occurrences. The fact that states have now adopted essentially interchangeable grade-level academic standards will minimize the frictions of change.

National Funding

There’s a strong argument that states should be obligated to conduct school redistricting under the Fourteenth Amendment. But incentives always help. And while redistricting would start to even out extreme variations in wealth between districts, it wouldn’t eliminate them. Nor would redistricting change the fact that some states are much richer than others. Of all the indispensable public services, K-12 education is, by far, the most rooted in local wealth and poverty.

It’s time for the national government to step forward and fix this problem, with conditions. States would need to adopt decennial school redistricting. They would also need to adhere to basic principles of fair school funding. While state school funding schemes are often arcane in their details, the principles of fair funding are simple:

  1. Determine how much money each district needs by counting the number of students and funding them equally, with extra money for students who need extra services, such as students with disabilities and those from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
    2. Set a uniform property tax rate for each district.
    3. Give each district enough money from state revenues to make up the difference between what’s required by (1) and raised by (2).

These principles aren’t a secret. Many states have already adopted them, often in response to court decisions. Even California has taken steps in recent years to start evening out disparities between districts like Piedmont and Oakland. A major school finance restructuring signed by Governor Jerry Brown in 2013 has steadily lifted Oakland’s funding by thousands of dollars per student. Earlier this year, a bipartisan deal was struck in Texas to shift school funding away from local property taxes, expand preschool, and increase overall financial support for schools.

The rest of the states should get on board. States would also have to keep their total state and local K-12 spending above a certain level, with wealthier states providing proportionately more.

In exchange, the federal government should give school districts enough money to provide equal educational opportunities nationwide. How much money that would cost is substantially a function of ambition. The current system has produced disparities so wide that it’s essentially impossible to level up funding to what’s currently being spent in the few outlier districts at the very top. But we can go a long way in that direction. Bringing every district up to the current 85th percentile of state and local funding (weighted by the number of students) would cost $250 billion a year.

That’s a lot of money. But to put it in perspective, the 2017 tax reforms are costing the federal government about $200 billion a year. In other words, nearly all we need to do to help the large majority of American school districts receive the fair funding their children need and deserve is return to the level of federal tax revenue we had only three years ago.

Decriminalization

The final condition for receiving national funding should be decriminalization. Arresting or suing parents for sending their children to public school is obscene. Anyone should be able to enroll their children in any school district. If there’s not enough room in a given school, districts should use a lottery system.

Conclusion

In his Milliken dissent, Thurgood Marshall wrote, “Our Nation, I fear, will be ill served by the Court’s refusal to remedy separate and unequal education, for unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together.”

Marshall’s fears were a prophecy. Our people today are not doing well at living together, and the school district system has played a critical role in those divisions. It’s easy enough to condemn people like the Gardendale secessionists or urban professionals with exquisite liberal sensibilities who nonetheless immediately head for the barricades when someone suggests rezoning their local elementary school to include more black and brown children. But the school district system is more insidious than that. It envelops us all in a series of structured choices—where to work, who to know, how to live—that leads, unavoidably, toward crushing injustice.

People broadly support providing all children with a good public education. They also intensely want what’s best for their own children. The only reason rich people don’t buy their way into an Extra Great Public Child Healthcare District is that no such districts exist. But we shouldn’t blame parents for wanting what’s best for their kids. Instead, we need to change the way people are able to act on that desire, in a way that better promotes the common good.

The combination of redistricting, national funding, and decriminalization would mean that buying an expensive home would no longer guarantee an inalienable right to send your children to a public school with the most educational resources and social capital that money can buy. You can’t build a fortress on foundation lines that change every ten years. National funding tied to state school finance reform would take away the financial advantage of living among other rich people, at least from a public school perspective, because property-rich districts and property-poor districts would be treated equally. Decriminalization would further prevent people from sequestering themselves in privileged schools.

These policies would create the conditions for implementing true school desegregation, to finally meet the unkept promise of Brown v. Board. They would also create a foundation of legitimacy on which authentic school accountability could be built.

Leveling the K-12 playing field won’t solve everything. People will still be able to send their children to private schools. Public schools still need to be well-managed as well as well-funded. There is a great deal of work to be done to improve housing, poverty, health care, criminal justice, and much more.

But tearing down the school district system is a critical step toward building a more just society. While there would still be government units called “school districts,” they would no longer mean what they mean today. This kind of fundamental restructuring and redistribution goes well beyond the kind of safely virtuous programs that don’t hit college-educated liberals where it hurts. That’s exactly why it must be done.

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Kevin Carey directs the education policy program at New America, a think tank in Washington, DC. He writes about education for The New York Times and elsewhere.

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