Report: Congress has Underfunded Public Schools for Decades

A new report cites teacher strikes such as the April 2018 walkouts in Oklahoma City, seen above, as evidence of chronic federal under-funding of public schools.


(Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images.)

UPDATE: This article has been revised to include reaction from Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia).

Congress has underfunded America’s public schools—short-changing impoverished students, students of color, and students with disabilities—by hundreds of billions of dollars, according to a major new report. The report, entitled “Confronting the Education Debt,” is being released publicly on Wednesday, but was provided early to The Young Turks.

From 2005 through 2017, the report concludes, federal education funds allocated to needy schools in all fifty states fell a total of $580 billion short of the levels mandated by federal law.

The report, commissioned by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS)—a coalition of groups including the American Federation of Teachers and the Service Employees International Union—focuses on education funding levels first established in 1965. As part of Pres. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, a landmark education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was passed to address inequality in America’s education funding.

Title I of the ESEA entitled schools in which at least 40% of students are low-income to receive additional federal education funds. For every low-income child at Title I schools, the law authorized Congress to allocate an additional 40% of the state's per-pupil spending base.

Title I schools could provide supplemental support, such as extra reading assistants and parent engagement specialists, to help impoverished students make up for educational shortfalls associated with poverty. A 2014 UNICEF report found that one third of American children live in poverty.

More than fifty years after ESEA, however, the goal of equitable education funding has never been met, according to the report. Congress, the report notes, failed the very first year to allocate money at Title I levels.

The report juxtaposes the education shortfall with rising economic inequality and concludes that the privatization of schools has cost public school districts hundreds of millions in funding. The report notes that, during the period studied, America’s 400 richest people saw their net worth increase by $1.57 trillion.

Communities with higher proportions of people of color suffer disproportionately from economic inequality, and that includes education funding, the report says. It says, “Black and Brown students are more likely” to endure a range of disadvantages tied to their funding shortfalls. Examples the report lists include:

  • Crowded classrooms
  • Inexperienced teachers
  • Higher teacher turnover rates
  • Less access to high-level courses
  • Less access to resources including technology, nurses, librarians, and other support staff

The report says that if Congress allocated Title I funding fully, America’s most impoverished schools could provide every student with:

  • health and mental-health services for every student, including dental and vision services;
  • a full-time nurse in every Title I school;
  • a full-time librarian for every Title I school; and
  • teaching assistants or counselors.

Source: “Confronting the Education Debt”

The report says that disciplinary injustice follows economic disparity, noting that children of color are more likely to be removed from class and placed in detention. The report also points out the Department of Education estimate that “1.6 million students in the U.S. attend a school that has hired a law enforcement officer, but no school counselor.”

The report says, “Schools that fail to serve these children are not accidental, nor are they the fault of students, educators, unions, communities or parents—all of whom seem too often to take the blame. They are the logical outcome of the systematic exclusion of Black and Brown communities from the halls of political power where priorities are set and budgets determined.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reportedly said last month that the department would let states use federal education funds to buy guns for schools.

The AROS report also addresses the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires schools to identify and evaluate students with disabilities in order to provide them with the services they need. The report says, “IDEA made providing these additional services mandatory and Congress pledged that the federal government would pay up to 40 percent of the cost.”

However, “[o]nce again, having established the formula, Congress failed to invest in it. Federal funding of IDEA has never approached the promised 40 percent mark.”

Source: “Confronting the Education Debt”

In fact, the AROS report says that, “[s]ince 2005, the aggregated federal underpayment to states to help provide services to students with disabilities has reached $233 billion.”

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia), ranking member of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, told TYT, "This report reflects the consequences of misplaced priorities and serves as another reminder of the urgent need to end the chronic underfunding of our public schools.”

Scott said, "My Democratic colleagues and I have consistently advocated for a large-scale reinvestment in America’s public schools through proposals such as the Rebuild America’s Schools Act."

He also echoed the report's focus on the disparity between education spending and growing economic inequality, saying that his bill "would invest $100 billion in the physical and digital infrastructure schools need to provide students a healthy learning environment. Not only have Republicans refused to consider this and other proposals, they passed a tax cut that costs nearly $2 trillion, overwhelmingly benefits corporations and the wealthy, and changes the tax code to discourage state and local governments from investing in public education."

The report cites recent walkouts by teachers in multiple states that have cut education funding, and notes that many of the critiques of public education can be traced to the inadequate funding it receives.

Andrew Lapp is a freelance journalist and former Intern for TYT Investigates. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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