Confronting Systemic Racism Must Include K-12 Education

Institutional racism, also known as systemic racism, is getting some long-overdue attention as our nation confronts biases and inequities embedded into society. This examination must include the institution where many Americans first encounter racial inequity: K-12 education.

Funding imbalance

COVID-19 has exacerbated these inequities, but disproportionate school funding has a very long history and stands at the forefront of institutional racism in education.

Students who live in poverty go to schools where less is spent on each child compared with lower-poverty districts. In the 2015-2016 school year, of the $44.6 billion spent on capital construction by districts, high-poverty districts saw about $300 less spent per student.

In Michigan, the funding system is no different. A 2018 report by The Education Trust places Michigan among the bottom five states in addressing equity through school funding. The state’s highest-poverty school districts receive 5% less in total state and local funds than the lowest-poverty districts.

Funding also links closely to the state of the facilities where students are expected to learn. The 2020 GAO report on school facilities found many districts required extensive repair. However, the largest need was in metropolitan districts, with schools serving 50% or more minority students, or 70% or more poor students. Another study of urban schools reported that an urban district can allocate about 3.5 percent of its budget toward maintenance. To put this amount in perspective, in one urban district, the funding was only adequate to paint classrooms every 100 years and replace floor coverings every 50 years.

We’ve learned through the success of the Reading Now Network and a special initiative within several Grand Rapids Public Schools that resources like classroom libraries, summer reading programs, and additional instructional support are critical if at-risk students are to perform at the same level as their peers who come from more affluent households.


COVID-19 tips the scales further

With the arrival of the pandemic and a shift to distance learning, inequities expanded beyond the inadequate learning environment of high-poverty districts. Teachers in the highest-poverty schools reported nearly a third of their students were not logging in or otherwise making contact. That figure is almost three times higher than the percentage of truant students reported by teachers in low-poverty districts.

West Michigan has identified the risks of a digital divide linked to access and affordability of broadband services and technology. Nationally, a Pew Research Center analysis shows 15% of U.S. households with school-age children lack a high-speed internet connection at home. Connectivity decreases with income: Roughly one-third (35%) of households with children ages 6 to 17 and an annual income below $30,000 a year do not have a high-speed internet connection at home, compared with just 6% of households earning $75,000 or more a year.

These broadband gaps are particularly pronounced in black and Hispanic households with school-age children, especially in low-income households.

A McKinsey report showed that learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic will have the greatest effect on low-income, black, and Hispanic students. Lower-income students are less likely to have access to high-quality remote learning or to a conducive learning environment, such as a quiet space with minimal distractions, devices they do not need to share, high-speed internet, and parental academic supervision. In McKinsey’s projections, the average student during hybrid learning will suffer a learning loss of about seven months. For black students, that learning loss increases to 10.3 months and as much as a year for low-income students. Those figures are estimated to exacerbate the existing achievement gaps by 15 to 20 percent.


Why this is important

All students deserve access to a high quality education. One that is funded equitably. This must be a regional and statewide undertaking, extending beyond the classroom.

Talent 2025 recommends the following to align funding levels and guarantee these are put to best use to ensure all Michigan students receive a high quality educational experience

  1. Direct more resources to educate at-risk students.
  2. Help urban and rural schools retain highly effective teachers and principals.
  3. Advocate for high-quality, affordable and accessible child care
  4. Improve funding levels for the Great Start Readiness Program

As Stanford University researcher Francis Pearman observed in a recent study, Collective Racial Bias and the Black-White Test Score Gap, counties with higher levels of racial bias have larger disparities in test scores.

Acknowledging the temptation to focus solely on teachers, Pearman writes in a summary for Brookings that the responsibility for resolving educational inequality falls on the community:

“It’s communities, after all, who determine how educational resources are distributed, the elected officials and volunteer groups who set educational priorities, the formation and gerrymandering of district boundaries and school attendance zones, and the school leadership that presides over the operation of school life.”


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