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Separate and Unequal and Unfunded

Massachusetts is lauded for its extremely successful and highly-ranked public school system (and schools in general, such as our own). Yet public school funding — almost always directed from local property taxes to local public schools — is hugely uneven. De facto school segregation and incidents of “intensely segregated” public schools have barely improved in the last fifty years (save for progress made by a few rare programs, like Metco, and independent schools with resources to reach out to and recruit students from a range of locations). Perhaps unsurprisingly, poorly-funded schools and areas with higher concentrations of students of color overlap with striking precision.

It would be an impossible effort to trace the entire history of inequality and racism to present in order to attribute it exactly to public schools and, by and large, the opportunity that follows. But the record is undeniable: the widespread practice of redlining (and its evil twin, restrictive covenants), which has had a cascading effect on generations of Black families; the de jure and de facto racist policies permeating every corner of America, whether in the public or private sphere; the grotesque racial wealth gap and shocking dearth of resources and opportunity in communities of color; the blatantly separate and entirely unequal public school system; the near ubiquity of police brutality toward people of color; the horrific impact of harsh sentencing laws suffused with racial bias and applied by overly-zealous prosecutors with all the power and resources on their side; the general criminalization of poverty (including pre-trial imprisonment); the extensive over-policing of communities of color; and the prison-industrial complex, which has been abundantly fed by the “school to prison” pipeline into which so many young men and women of color are funneled. This, of course, is just a partial list.

Unlike most states, the Constitution of Massachusetts requires that the state guarantee a certain level of funding per student per year ($11,448 most recently). Most of this funding burden, though, lies on the local administration; the state itself (and all of its revenue) only provides up to 17.5% of the basic cost per student with certain higher exceptions. The result, of course, is largely separate and plainly unequal public education, the kind that the Civil Rights Act sought to end through law.
In many ways — hardly more than fifty years beyond the Jim Crow Era — the system of public education in Massachusetts (and in the country) is still in its infancy. The laws and progressive politics that our state has consistently sponsored to level racial inequality have been unsuccessful in the sphere of education, arguably the most important access point to opportunity writ large. While the issue is far more embedded anywhere in society than adjusting funding might solve alone, it would offer relief to public education where it’s most badly needed. If the state covered the basic expense per student — or, at least, covered a greater share than it currently does — the poorest towns and cities in the state would finally experience the relative financial security that so many other districts enjoy in abundance. This change alone (among a long list of other funding options), ones that our state is certainly capable of making, would encourage higher graduation rates, a better quality of education for the average student, would begin to address the enormous disadvantage into which many Black and brown students are born, and help to provide every other benefit we know to be true of a fulfilling education.

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