Is More Money the Answer to Schools at This Point?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Gillian just wrote a piece looking at how “research shows that in Pennsylvania’s public schools, skin color, not economics, determines how much money districts get.” A reader objects to the research and how it was framed:

Once again, we have a combination of very careful wording and highly selective use of statistics to give the impression that minority schools spend less per student. That’s simply not true. Spending per pupil by school system is the best metric for spending comparisons and it’s no contest. Philly, with the state’s largest minority enrollment, ranks 18th in the nation for per-pupil spending (see page 25 of this report). No other Pennsylvania school system even makes it onto the list of top 100 spenders. So there is no lack of money and no reason to believe increasing money would make any difference.

Another reader adds:

The urban schools aren’t just funded by people who live in their districts. They get more money per student from other sources (read: business taxes, the feds) that rural school districts (which are whiter) don’t have. So the rural districts get more money from the state, but still less overall than the urban ones. And that last part doesn’t get mentioned because it doesn’t fit the narrative.

Gillian responds to both readers at length:

The first reader asserts that Philadelphia’s public schools don’t have a funding problem. He or she points to a report from the Census Bureau, which ranks Philadelphia 18th in per-student spending and they note that no other district in Pennsylvania appears. But that’s because Census’s data only ranks the 100-largest public-school systems in the country. So while wealthy Pennsylvania districts, like Lower Merion, spend way more per student than schools in the city’s urban core, their enrollment of 8,000 students simply isn’t enough to merit mention in such statistics.

Both urban and rural districts in Pennsylvania receive more state funding than their wealthier suburban counterparts, and they should. But while funding is indeed a mix of different sources, schools in Philadelphia nevertheless rely heavily on revenue from property taxes, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of their funding. Money from things like business taxes, referenced by the second reader, account for only 13 percent of school funds.

Another reader makes broader criticisms:

In the U.S., the accusation of racism has become increasingly common and increasingly serious—being viewed as a racist can scuttle one’s career and ruin one’s social standing quicker perhaps than anything less than committing a violent felony. Because of this, it’s especially important that we are careful with our accusations of racism, as it’s an especially heavy bat to swing at the face of public figures and private citizens if guilt is not assured or at least very likely.

In “The Data Are Damning,” Gillian B. White not-so-subtly makes an accusation of racism that, on its face, looks far-fetched: In the 19th most Democratic state in the union, a large number of public servants conspired, in secrecy, to defund largely black schools to the advantage of largely white schools. Due to the fact that the damning data is a graph and not the outraged reports of those same servants, she seems to assume that this conspiracy worked and that nobody found the morality to publicly decry a blatantly racist policy that punished underprivileged children based purely on race.

This is, at first glance, a hugely improbable scenario. As such, it would seem to demand a truly damning and solid piece of evidence to prove. The premise of the article is based around Mosenkis’ graph, which the author claims provides that proof by showing that lower-income black students receive less aid than white students of the same income level. Unfortunately, the graph shows nothing of the sort.

The problem arises when we analyze how the graph was put together. While Ms. White accepts the assertion that the graph is about income levels, it’s not: The graph was built by looking at the amount of children in the schools who qualify for lunchtime meal assistance. At first blush, this looks like it would work for the purpose, but there are several ways it might not.

Being qualified for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) isn’t a passive process and involves either having been pre-qualified by nature or being on other assistance programs (mainly SNAP) or by actively seeking out the aid, getting forms and proving income. It’s less an indicator of how many people need assistance and more one of how many seek it. It’s not a pleasant idea, but there certainly is the possibility that among the many cultural differences between black families and white families that there might be a difference in how soon and how often those families generally seek aid at different income levels. If white families are culturally disinclined as compared to black families to seek aid, the argument falls apart.

This isn’t to say that I believe that white families are less likely to seek aid. There could be no difference in this regard. It could work the other direction and black families are those less likely to look for help, which would even further widen the gulf and show even more bias. The problem is that Ms. White doesn’t seem to have even considered this.

It’s also problematic that in accepting racial bias as the cause of this gulf, she didn’t consider any other possible cause. There was no analysis of the policies that caused this result. One accusation is made—that the policy-makers in Pennsylvania are racist—and no defense for this accusation is considered. No other idea is entertained for even a moment. There wasn’t so much as the courtesy of talking to the accused to see if any defense exists.

Ms. White goes to the trouble of pointing out the dire consequences of the lack of funding, showing educational gulfs caused by unaddressed financial need. She makes a point of indicating that this difference in funding also potentially caused the deaths of two children. When she accuses these people of doing this purposefully, she accuses them of abuse of the poor and murder-by-budget. These aren’t light accusations.

Accusations of racism are serious, and the consequences of racism are equally or more so. It is sometimes appropriate to use a bludgeon against injustice, but when the weapon is as powerful as what Ms. White wields there is a responsibility to carefully examine the evidence against the accused before striking. This doesn’t weaken the power of the club, since if the evidence is there and substantiated, it makes the arguments stronger and more unassailable. If the evidence is not there, it keeps us from striking unjustly at the innocent.

Here’s Gillian again:

My reader asserts that perhaps National School Lunch Program is a poor proxy for estimating poverty and need. He or she writes that maybe poor black families are just more likely to seek out government benefits, “If white families are culturally disinclined as compared to black families to seek aid, the argument falls apart.”

But the argument doesn’t fall apart because that’s not a factually supported theory. As my reader notes, one of the qualifications for admission to the NSLP program involves either actively applying or being prequalified for such services, usually because a student already receives SNAP benefits. The composition for the SNAP program? About 40 percent white and 25 percent black. This would suggest that white families do not in fact have a problem seeking out such services.

My reader suggests that I casually throw around claims of racism. In doing so, this reader uses the word five times. In my piece, I never use it. Bias exists, be it implicit or explicit, intentional or unintentional. I did not once attempt to assign a motive to the policies that govern educational funding, but rather pointed out a persistent trend that harms some of Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable children.

Have any strong views about school funding? Email Update from a reader:

I read Gillian White’s piece regarding public school funding with great interest because I am a native of Pennsylvania.  The piece was short but one factor that makes Pennsylvania unique from other states is the sheer number of school districts.  There are 67 counties and 799 school districts, with most counties having several school districts, even if the municipalities are small. Philadelphia is one exception to this rule where the county and the school district having virtually the same boundaries. 

For example, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, with a population of 561,973 people, contains 16 separate school districts. If a few of those school districts were consolidated, funding and racial disparities would decline because those districts are drawn on distinct socioeconomic and racial lines.  For example, Chester Upland School district is the lowest-funded school district in the state with the poorest academic outcomes and is 90 percent African American and shares a northeast border with Wallingford-Swarthmore school district, which is 90 percent white and has significantly better academic outcomes.