Separate but Equal?

October 10th, 2011


Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren famously stated, “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” In 1954, the Supreme Court reached a decision in the landmark case Brown vs. The Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas and proceeded to integrate black and white students into the same schools. Today, of course, we don’t have the blatant separation of schools by color or gender. However, are our schools segregated in another sense, by funding? According to our text, the Supreme Court case of Serrano vs. Priest argues that the reliance on local funding to determine school budgets created “unconstitutional disparities” in school’s spending (Ornstein, Levine, Gutek. 2011. pg. 245).  The success of that case, in addition to others, brought change to the system of funding schools. However, how successful have we been and how much further do we have to go?

There can be little argument that there is a difference in attending one school district to another. Being a child of the military I often heard my parents debating new neighborhoods based on what schools we would be attending. The Teach for America website (2011), further proves the existence of disparity between schools with their mission statement; “all kids – no matter where they live, how much money their parents make, or what their skin color is – deserve access to a great education. But in our country today, a significant achievement gap exists between low-income children and their wealthier peers” (pg. 1). The American Physiological Foundation (2011) agrees, “Inadequate education and increased dropout rates affect children’s academic achievement, perpetuating the low-SES status of the community” (pg. 1).

Why is there such a difference in public schools in this country? Even ones that are separated by little more than a short car ride? One way is to take a look at where the money is coming from. According to the National Center for Education Statistics “… states use a combination of income taxes, corporate taxes, sales taxes, and fees to provide about 48 percent of the budget for elementary and secondary schools. Local districts contribute around 44 percent, drawn mostly from local property taxes. And the federal government antes up approximately 8 percent of state education budgets” (pg. 4).

Our text lists the major income sources in the following order…

On the local level:

1. Property Tax: This is where the majority of the school’s money comes from. Homes in the school districts boundaries are charged tax on their market value. This creates a problem all in itself. Areas where higher income families live will have more expensive homes to begin with. Also, the market value of a higher income area will be much greater as market value is affected by safety, location, and access to schools. Children who come from lower-income areas are suffering as the money generated from their property taxes is much less, leading to an under-funded school system.

2. Special Revenue: These monies come from a variety of areas; user fees for special services/facilities, traffic fines, or sometimes product contracts. This is a different beast than the property tax. On one hand it is not based on the persons income. The property tax is almost cyclical; poorer families go to poorer, sometimes substandard schools, and then, in some cases, lack the skills to leave that socio-economic group. Special revenue can come from outside influences.

The ‘Take Issue’ in this chapter concerned product placement in schools. In some ways, I feel like this has potential for beneficial results. However, it would take a lot of careful planning. Product placement in schools is nothing new. In the 90s one example of product placement included students using software to type sentences like “I like to eat McDonalds” and “I like Pepsi” (GMV Counseil, 1998).  In the era of the fight against childhood obesity, these slogans would most likely not be acceptable. However, even the office of the First Lady, as part of their ‘Let’s Move!’ program, supports “work with local retailers to improve product placement of healthier food and beverage choices” (Schepper, 2011. pg. 12). Product placement of items promoting healthy lifestyle, integrated into lower income schools, could provide the double benefit of improving funding and the quality of life of the students.


On the state level:

 1. Sales Tax: Seemingly one of the most useful sources of income. It adjusts itself to the economic times and affects the purchaser equitably according to their ability to buy. 

2. Personal Income Tax: This is another way of collecting based on ability to pay. Those who make more will give more. However, in difficult times, much like the last 10 years, this revenue is unstable as unemployment grows.

3. Other:  States can also choose to tax on liquor, tobacco, lottery, estates, gifts, or corporations and use the money for schools.

The means the states use in acquiring funds is not so much of a problem as on the local level. Money comes in from the higher income families as well as the lower income families. It is more of an issue when it comes time to distribute the funds. Our text modeled four plans to distribute the funds. The worst of these seemed to be the ‘flat grant model’, the number of students multiplied by a fixed amount. According to Augenblick, Myers, and Anderson (2007) the ‘flat grant model’ could mean “… a wealthier district that was able to provide smaller classes would actually receive more state aid per student than would a poorer district with large class sizes” (pg. 64).  Students cost different amounts to educate. Special needs students require specialists in class, OT or PT specialists, counselors, speech therapists, and social workers. School districts with high immigrant populations require ESL teachers. Low-income areas require more funding for meals and transportation. The ‘weighted student plan’ takes into account these conditions and includes them in the math.


On the Federal level:

1. Categorical grants: provides money from Federal sources to specific groups and purposes.

2. Block grants: money given to a general purpose without a specific designee

The biggest debate in the federal realm of funding seems to lie in the increased demands on schools by the NCLB act without an appropriate increase in funding. The introduction of standardized assessments, teacher qualification requirements, and AYP has been a burden on school budgets. In addition, schools that lack adequate funding are not meeting the requirements of AYP and suffering because of it.

The funding of schools in America is most likely a debate that will be occurring for the majority, if not all, of our lifetimes. The advent of IDEA and NCLB signal an increase in importance for education; which is our country needs to consider important. However, without changing the way we handle money and resources, it may be an unattainable goal. It is easy to pontificate on the need for equitable distribution of funds however; few are able to say that they wouldn’t mind increasing their taxes for students they are not related to or even near.


U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics. (2010).  Revenues and Expenditures for Public Elementary and Secondary Education: School Year 2007-08. Pg. 4.

(2011). Earl Warren Quotes. Retrieved from:

Teach for America. (2011). Our Organization. Retrieved from :

American Physiological Association. (2011).  Education and Socio-Economic Status.  Retrieved from

Augenblick, J. Myers, J. Anderson, A. (2007).  Equity and adequacy in school funding. Future of Children, 7 (3), 64.

GMV Conseil. (1998). Marketing in Schools. Brussels, Belgium: European Commission.

Schepper, R. (2011). Let’s Move Cities and Towns. Washington DC: Office of the First Lady.

Ornstein, A., Levine, D., Gutek, G. (2011). Foundation of education (11th Ed.). Belmont, Ca: Wadsworth.



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