Establish Education Equity

“The Governor has sent a message to my child and all these students that their efforts and hard work mean nothing … Can you look into my child’s eyes and tell her that she is undeserving of a quality and enriched education? Because I can’t.”



Equal opportunity is a cornerstone of the American ideal. To make that a reality, every child deserves a quality public education, with an opportunity to learn, flourish, and become a full citizen of our democracy. This commitment to universal education is enshrined in state constitutions across the country. Yet in practice, the majority of states provide students with dramatically unequal educational resources, and policymakers provide inadequate funding to schools that serve students of color and students from struggling families.136 After gains from civil rights-era policies, decisions by today’s policymakers are re-segregating American education, with students increasingly clustered in schools that are isolated by race and class. Segregation further concentrates both public and private resources among the already well-off, and limits opportunities for all students to learn from peers with different backgrounds and to prepare for life and work in an ever more diverse and interconnected world. As our nation as a whole has become more unequal and divided, education—which could be a powerful force for fostering opportunity and reducing inequality—instead frequently reflects and reinforces disparities in race and class.

Racial inequity in American education stretches back to the first policies forbidding slaves from learning to read and the century of inferior “separate but equal” educational facilities that followed. After the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawed segregation in public schools, parents, students and advocates fought successfully to integrate schools and school systems across the nation. Yet today, as judges’ and policymakers’ political will for enforcing desegregation has waned, a growing number of American students are once again isolated into racially and economically homogenous schools. Because America’s communities remain intensely segregated by race and income, local tax bases are deeply unequal. This inequality is deepened when school districts secede from their larger communities and school zones are gerrymandered within districts, further splintering student populations along lines of race and class.137

In most states, public school districts are operated at the local level and are funded largely by local property taxes. As a result of these political decisions, students of color are more likely to attend overcrowded and underfunded schools that have a lower percentage of highly qualified teachers and less access to quality curriculum and up-to-date technology compared to white students.138 Overall, students who need the most resources—including English language learners and students whose family, social, or economic circumstances challenge their ability to learn at school—attend schools that receive less funding than schools serving better-off students. Nationwide, policymakers provided the highest-poverty school districts with approximately $1,200 less in funding per student each year than the lowest-poverty districts.139 This shortchanges a 1,000-student high school by $1.2 million annually. Meanwhile districts that serve the most students of color face an even larger gap, receiving approximately $2,000 per student less than school districts serving the fewest students of color.140

In addition to being dramatically unequal, school funding is also increasingly inadequate: In a number of states, policymakers substantially reduced public investment in K-12 education over the last decade. Not only did most states cut school funding after the Great Recession, but the majority never fully restored their support: In 2015, 29 states were still supplying less overall funding per student than they provided in 2008.141 Policymakers’ decision to cut funding undermines states’ ability to attract and retain quality teachers, guarantee safe buildings, offer reasonable class sizes, provide arts education, upgrade technology and equipment, and increase students’ learning time. Statewide funding cuts also widen educational disparities: While wealthy communities can make up cuts to funding with additional property tax revenue, areas with fewer resources are left with less investment in education. While more funding doesn’t automatically translate into higher school quality, adequate funding is a precondition for high-quality education, with higher levels of per-student funding associated with better student achievement and higher graduation rates, especially for lower-income students.142 Inadequate school funding stunts students’ access to high-quality teachers and a rigorous curriculum that prepares them for college and careers.

Discrimination within schools and classrooms is another barrier to education equity. Nationwide, more than 80 percent of public school teachers and principals are white, while more than half of public school students are of color.143 Teachers’ and administrators’ implicit bias about students’ learning abilities can limit opportunity for students of color, contributing to lower academic performance and student disengagement from learning.144 At the same time, racialized disciplinary policies result in students of color, particularly black students, being disproportionately suspended or expelled.145 American Indian students, LGBTQ students, and students with disabilities also face disproportionate rates of suspension and expulsion. Zero tolerance policies, surveillance, and the increased presence of police officers in schools—particularly schools that serve low-income students and students of color—contribute to a school-to-prison pipeline that pushes students of color into the criminal justice system for minor offenses.146 Treating students as criminals rather than addressing the underlying causes of misconduct—such as a learning disability or a history of child abuse or exposure to violence and instability—undermines learning, increases students’ risk of falling behind academically, and does little to increase school safety.



70% of Americans agree that more should be done to integrate low- and high-poverty schools.147

73% of parents of school-age children say that it is important that public schools in their community have a mix of students from different racial/ethnic backgrounds.148

87% of public school parents say cutting local school budgets is a serious concern, including 62% who say it is a very serious concern.149



Establish education equity by guaranteeing adequate and fair school funding, combatting segregation, and dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline.

  • Ensure adequate and equitable school funding. Reform state education funding formulas to account for the greater resources needed by English language learners, students from struggling families, and special needs students, and to effectively address unequal local funding capacity. In general, states that rely more heavily on local property taxes to fund schools have greater funding disparities between school districts, suggesting that a shift toward statewide funding of schools and away from local property taxes would enhance equity.
  • Provide incentives for local governments to consolidate school districts and to enroll students across district boundaries. Consolidated school districts and schools that enroll across district boundaries promote integration that would otherwise be impeded by district lines. At the same time, policymakers should strengthen state regulations to discourage school districts from seceding from the larger community (for example, by drawing new district borders that exclude neighborhoods or municipalities with lower-income populations or more students of color). 
  • Support the development of affordable housing throughout the state and fight housing discrimination. Segregated schools and school districts often reflect segregated residential patterns. Funding and encouraging the development of affordable housing, including multi-unit housing, in communities of all income levels can increase racial and economic integration in schools. Aggressive enforcement of fair housing rules to prevent discrimination against renters and homebuyers of color in predominantly white communities will also promote more integrated communities and schools.
  • Create community schools. Community schools are partnerships between the school, families, and community partners to support young people in school and beyond. By providing services and engaging parents and the broader community, community schools can reduce the impact of systemic racial and economic disadvantage on students. States support community schools by funding wraparound services such as after-school programs, summer enrichment programs, counseling and mental health care for troubled students, and connections to community service programs to support families. Access to early childhood education, discussed separately in this briefing book, is often considered a wraparound service. States should encourage school districts to make schools welcoming to families and streamline families’ access to school-related information, ensuring that communication with parents and communities is in a language parents understand and feel comfortable with.
  • Respect teachers as professionals. Excellent teaching has a profound impact on student achievement. Teachers should be compensated as the professionals they are, have autonomy and input into how schools are run, and receive frequent opportunities for professional development. Respect for teachers improves learning for all students and can reduce bias within schools: Improved compensation and working conditions facilitate recruitment of teachers of color. In addition, states should fund professional development to support teachers in increasing their cultural competency and reducing implicit bias.
  • Prevent schools from moving students into the juvenile justice system for minor offenses. The Council of State Governments Justice Center offers a consensus report on school discipline that recommends standards for schools to create welcoming and secure learning environments that enable teachers to control misbehavior. These include offering targeted behavioral interventions, such as counseling and mental health services, to students with persistent disciplinary problems, and coordinating with the police and court systems to de-escalate student confrontations and divert young people from the criminal justice system.150 States should encourage schools to eliminate zero tolerance policies and should end any immigration enforcement in public schools.



  • A young person’s opportunity to get an education should not depend on his or her zip code. Every child needs a quality education to succeed in the economy and participate in our democracy. Education can be a path to social mobility, a chance to rise to the top even if you come from a poor or disadvantaged background. Yet the highest-poverty school districts get less funding than their wealthier neighbors, and schools with a majority of white students have more resources than schools that educate students of color. No student should have to learn in a classroom that goes unheated in winter or leaks when it rains. We cannot set our young people up for unequal futures right from the beginning.
  • We are a stronger and more prosperous state when every child has the opportunity to learn. Our economy needs a skilled and educated workforce to thrive. Our democracy depends on knowledgeable citizens. When we don’t give all students access to the quality schools they need to succeed, we limit the state’s future. Tomorrow’s medical researchers may never discover cures if their high school doesn’t have a science lab. Tomorrow’s judges may never enter the courtroom if their education doesn’t provide critical thinking skills. Tomorrow’s great musicians may never pick up an instrument if their school fails to provide arts education.
  • All students benefit from more diverse schools. All students benefit from the opportunity to learn from peers with different backgrounds and to prepare for life and work in a diverse and interconnected world. Researchers find that students attending more racially and economically diverse schools have higher achievement in mathematics, science, language and reading.151 Yet more than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, our public schools are again largely segregated by race, ethnicity, and family economic status, depriving young people of the benefits of a diverse school environment.
  • Treating students as criminals undermines learning. Zero tolerance school discipline policies are ineffective and often discriminatory, pushing students of color out of school and into the criminal justice system for minor offenses. Young people facing the instability of poverty or coping with histories of abuse and neglect need support and counseling from their schools, not a system that isolates them and pushes them out of the classroom and away from opportunities to learn.



  • Researchers find that improving and equalizing school funding greatly improves outcomes for students, with the biggest benefits for students from low-income families. A 20 percent increase in per-student spending is associated with approximately 0.9 more years of completed education for low-income students, a 25 percent increase in adult earnings, and a 20 percentage-point reduction in the likelihood of living in poverty as an adult.152
  • A rigorous evaluation of 113 high schools found that one model for community schools provided $11.60 in economic benefits for each dollar invested, primarily by reducing drop-out rates and increasing graduation rates, leading to higher incomes, more purchasing power, and increased tax payments from graduates.153 Similarly, an assessment at 2 elementary schools providing wraparound services found that an investment of $1 in those schools returned $10.30 at one school and $14.80 at the other.154
  • Compared to students who attend racially or economically isolated schools, students who attend diverse K-12 schools are more likely to graduate from high school, enter and graduate from college, have greater incomes and experience higher occupational attainment.155





  1. “Parents sue Governor Cuomo’s Division of Budget for Punishing Improving Schools,” Alliance for Quality Education, September 6, 2016.
  2. “Secretary Duncan, Urban League President Morial to Spotlight States Where Education Funding Shortchanges Low-Income, Minority Students,” U.S. Department of Education, 2015. Resource Inequality: Shortchanging Students, EdBuild, 2014. 
  3. Fractured: The Breakdown of America’s School Districts, EdBuild, June 2017.
  4. Tina Trujillo et. al. Responding to Educational Inequality,  Haas Institute, 2017.
  5. Natasha Ushomirsky and David Williams, Funding Gaps 2015: Too Many States Still Spend Less On Educating Students Who Need The Most, The Education Trust, 2015, 
  6. Ushomirsky and Williams, Funding Gaps 2015.
  7. Michael Leachman, Kathleen Masterson, and Eric Figueroa, A Punishing Decade for School Funding, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, November 29, 2017.
  8. See for example, C. Kirabo Jackson, Rucker C. Johnson, Claudia Persico, The Effects of School Spending on Educational and Economic Outcomes: Evidence from School Finance Reforms, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2015. 
  9. 2015-2016 National Teacher and Principal Survey, National Center for Education Statistics,  
  10. See for example, Jason Grissom and Christopher Redding, “Discretion and Disproportionality: Explaining the Underrepresentation of High-Achieving Students of Color in Gifted Programs” American Educational Research Association 2(1), 2016. 
  11. “Data Snapshot: School Discipline,” U. S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, March, 2014,
  12. Jason Nance, “Student Surveillance, Racial Inequalities, and Implicit Racial Bias,” Emory Law Journal 765 August 27, 2016, 
  13. Isolated and Segregated: A New Look at the Income Divide in our Nation’s Schooling System, Center for American Progress, May, 2017,  
  14. “Academic Achievement isn’t the Only Mission,” Phi Delta Kappan, September 2017. 
  15. Public School Parents On The Value Of Public Education: Findings from a National Survey of Public School Parents Conducted for the AFT, Hart Research Associates, September 2017. 
  16. Emily Morgan, et. al. The School Discipline Consensus Report, The Council of State Governments Justice Center, 2014.
  17. Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, School Integration and K-12 Outcomes: An Updated Quick Synthesis of the Social Science Evidence, National Coalition on School Diversity, October 2016. 
  18. Jackson, The Effects of School Spending.
  19. The Economic Impact of Communities In Schools, Economic Modeling Specialists Inc., 2012.
  20. Julia Daniel and Jon Snyder, Community Schools as an Effective Strategy for Reform, National Education Policy Center, March 8, 2016.
  21. Mickelson, School Integration and K-12 Outcomes.