Even as the economy appears to be recovering from Covid-19 closures, schools are bracing for large budget cuts and layoffs. A decline in tax revenue combined with a likely increase in operations costs due to coronavirus safety measures means school districts will have less than planned to spend on actual education.
I’ve written in recent weeks about how educators can prepare for a recession, including reduction-in-force (RIF) and furlough days. Since school budgets are 80-90% personnel any reductions impact educator jobs. Understanding and exploring the process and impact of staff reductions is important for my usual readers.
Today, I want to look at a different impact: how the local process of education budget reductions serves to reinforce the racial wealth gap. Disinvestment in public education is a significant social issue. Due to funding structures, budget reductions in economic downturns tend to hit lower-wealth areas harder.
However, this won’t be a wholesale examination of school funding and student outcomes, but instead a view on how the district-level implementation of budget cuts reinforces education and income gaps.
Systemic racism pervades education. This is one example.
The Racial Wealth Gap
There is a significant racial wealth gap in America. Proving that is not my focus, but I’ll share a few graphs from this recent piece on the racial wealth gap by Of Dollars and Data.
Here’s what net worth by race looks like:
Sometimes people claim it’s about class or education rather than race. The gaps by race persist across indicators. This graph shows net worth by education level and race:
Education improves the net worth of all groups, but the gap persists (and actually grows) despite educational attainment. This is the cumulative impact of racist systems across our society.
More education does lead to more wealth, though. This is why education is important. Unfortunately, racial gaps pervade our education system as well. Here are cohort graduation rates by race:
I could show countless other statistics demonstrating our school system underserves students of color, but I wont spend time here arguing what is accepted and obvious. If you want a quick easy intro on systemic racism in education here’s a short piece from our friends at Ben and Jerry’s. Yes, even ice cream people know it.
Systemic racism pervades education and shows up in virtually all data points. There are myriad examples of how and why, but today I’m focused on local budget reductions.
Ways Budget Cuts in Education Reinforce Racial Gaps
I’ve now experienced three significant economic downturns in education. I was a new teacher in the early 2000s. During the Great Recession, I was a new administrator. And now, we are entering the third major downturn. I know what to look for and see it happening already.
I’ve witnessed how the budget reduction process directly reinforces educational outcome gaps. In some cases, the decision-making may be overtly racist. More common is structural decision-making that reinforces the status quo. Some acts may appear to be grounded in neutral process, or even participatory decision-making, but actually uphold the current unacceptable system. That is systemic racism.
We are about to enter another major budget reduction cycle. These things are likely to play out again, reinforcing or worsening educational disparities, thereby reinforcing racial wealth gaps for another generation.
Policy Requirement Implementation
Federal and state policy emphasize certain aspects of school curriculum. The most notable of these is the infamous No Child Left Behind. While the law rightly emphasized the outcome gaps in public education, it also narrowed accountability to testable subjects.
This meant that when budget reductions were applied in the early 2000s recession, and especially during the Great Recession, they were disproportionately applied to subjects considered non-essential or elective. Band, choir, art, sports and even social studies and science were reduced to protect the tested subjects of reading, writing, and math.
While competency in these subjects is important, it ignores the total fabric of education which supports students through to completion. Career-related experiences and classes in the STEM fields were also cut back drastically, reducing opportunities for students who most needed exposure.
It’s also important to note that in most cases these policies are built on what works for the dominant culture. When they’re used as guides for budget reductions, it reinforces the current system and benefits those who have been successful under it.
Decision-Making Process At the Local Level
Few people understand just how powerful a local school board is. I mentioned the federal and state policies first because they’re common across multiple school districts. How those policies are implemented, funded, and supported is up to the local school board. So too are budget decisions.
School Board Composition
School boards are overwhelmingly white and middle class. According to this school board survey, nearly 80% are white and less than 15% are people of color. (7% declined to answer.)
This is not to say that white people can’t make decisions that ultimately close educational opportunity gaps. However, in an education system that is now majority students of color, the decision-makers do not represent the perspective of the communities they serve. It’s impossible to change a system to better serve people without those people at the table.
How does this play out in budget reductions? School board members are more likely to support budget decisions that replicate and protect school experiences that benefited them. Many have been successful within the system, so their assumption is that it must be working. They also implicitly know how to work within and engage the system, and fail to realize it may not be as accessible for others.
Another implication of non-representative school boards: the community perspectives they are most likely to hear are those in their social groups, which are also overwhelmingly white and middle class.
Additionally, in many places the school board input process is opaque and lends itself to traditional middle class activism. Evening meetings with a formal and rigid input structure are designed to limit input, not emphasize it.
Unless a school board intentionally builds input structures to elevate voices from traditionally underserved communities its decisions will ultimately be based on limited perspective that replicates the status quo and preserves what is comfortable. Very few do this. Some claim they don’t know how, others blatantly reject its necessity.
During the reductions of 2009, I worked in a school district that had shifted from a suburban homogeneous district to a more urban district rich in racial diversity over the decade. Yet, the decision-making structure, both administration and board, did not reflect the new reality.
The district was facing a reduction of 20% of the workforce. Other items were being cut as well, including a golf team that had been highly successful in the 1990s. During the budget hearing, more than 2 hours of testimony were given by community members who participated in the golf championships of the past. They railed and emphasized the importance of maintaining tradition and honoring the past.
There was a single comment on the teacher reductions.
The result? Two more teachers were eliminated in order to fund the golf team which was now serving less than 10 students.
Emphasis on Class Size
Despite the previous example, local communities and teachers associations tend to prioritize class size in education. Teachers are critically important. The debate on the impact of class size, and its cost vs other actions is more mixed.
Even agreeing that class size is important, the emphasis at the local level leads to problematic decisions. Clumsy administrators or school boards do everything possible to protect the core classroom size.
Well-intentioned decisions lead to the elimination of programs and supports targeted to those students who need it most. Intervention programs will be cut, social-emotional supports reduced, and equity-based initiatives trimmed back to maintain universal class size ratios for all students.
Is saving a class size bump of 1 student per class worth gutting a reading intervention program for students entering school several years behind in literacy? I’ve seen it happen.
Greater Reduction of Non-Licensed Positions
This emphasis on class size also impacts the wealth gap in another way: districts eliminate support positions in favor of retaining classroom teaching positions. The typical cost ratio is roughly two paraeducators for every licenesed teaching position.
Not coincidentally, the support staff in most districts tends to be more racially diverse than the teaching staff. In addition to the educational impacts of fewer people of color in the building, there are direct employment (and therefore wealth) impacts.
Much like class size, this is a complex issue. There is research that shows experience in education is important to student outcomes. Teachers also deserve some level of protection from agism and capricious managers.
However, there is a very real impact on racial wealth from the last-in / first-out layoff systems that most school districts follow.
American educators have traditionally been largely white, even when the student populations they serve are not. This is especially true in many urban districts where majority-white education work forces serve student populations that are largely students-of-color.
There is evidence that students benefit from having teachers of color. The impact isn’t just for students of color. In fact, all students likely benefit from having a more diverse education workforce. Most importantly however, teachers of color boost the academic performance and graduation rates for students of color.
Some districts have undertaken greater efforts in recent years to build programs specifically to develop, recruit, and retain educators of color. These range from grow-your-own district pipelines to government-led programs, to higher ed institution efforts. Progress is being made, albeit slowly.
This downturn threatens even that progress. When teacher RIFs are enacted, newly hired educators of color will be disproportionately impacted. As a result, students will once again be served by a higher percentage of white educators.
Again, the impact on wealth isn’t only a result of weakening the education system. Those newly laid-off educators of color will now be without a salary and saddled with student loan debt.
Efforts that should be improving our education system AND providing a decent salary and benefits will do neither. Instead, due to education budget cuts and seniority-based layoff policies, the racial wealth gap is reinforced.
Finally, in wealthier areas the community itself will often help fill in funding gaps.
I’ve worked largely in Title 1 schools where the parent association works incredibly hard to raise a few thousand dollars a year. Meanwhile, the school one zip code over is selling student art at PTA auctions for $5k a pop. I’ve seen wealthier communities fundraise to keep open a library, provide music, or provide gifted education programs.
This very real difference in ability to fundraise doesn’t even take into account the even greater impact of local tax resources. Wealthier communities tend to experience less-severe funding cuts AND mitigate them at a greater rate.
Students in wealthier areas experience less reduction in education during downturns. Wealth gap.
Making More Equitable Education Budget Reductions
First, let me be clear that I believe education is a public good, required for a functional democracy, and should be funded at a much higher level. Our education system also needs significant restructuring to truly serve all students well. These are things that must be worked on at a national and local level.
Our current reality is that most funding reductions are implemented locally and reinforce the existing system and racial wealth gap. Greater reform is needed, but while working within the current flawed system, here are steps local-decision makers can take to make more equitable budget decisions.
- Use data and research, not “tradition” when considering budget reductions
- Emphasize programs that specifically support traditionally underserved students and close educational gaps.
- Intentionally build, and foster, input structures that elevate the voices of underserved communities in decision-making. Inclusion requires access, not lip service.
- Enact district policies for equitable fundraising
- Work with associations to adjust RIF procedures to support racial diversity efforts
Budget reductions in education have real and lasting social impact. Whole novels and countless articles have been written on the subject. Here, I’ve simply shared a few I’ve witnessed during local budget reductions. What others would you add?