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The steep price of school underfunding

Fedrick C. Ingram

There are numbers you know, and then there are numbers you feel.

For instance, I know that Black children make up 15% of this country’s K-12 public schools.

I also know that Black folks make up roughly the same percentage of U.S. citizens. 

But when I read The Adequacy and Fairness of State School Finance Systems, a report from the Albert Shanker Institute, and saw that Black children are 3.5 times more likely than white children to be in chronically underfunded school districts, well, I can feel that number.

That’s because I was that number. 

What should feel like a lifetime ago feels like yesterday for me growing up as a Black boy in a tough part of Miami. I know what it feels like to read from outdated textbooks and play music with broken instruments. Those experiences propelled me to pursue higher education at Bethune-Cookman University. It inspired me to become an educator, and to return to the classrooms and communities that have been economically forgotten. 

Yet as sobering as the report is for Black K-12 students and their families, it is by no means a new trend. The root of the issue lies deep in our country’s troubling past. 

After Reconstruction — those few brilliant years when America lived up to its promise of righting the wrongs of slavery and race-based violence — the country returned to its worst instincts. It closed its eyes to an epidemic of lynchings and fought against movements to desegregate stores, the military, and education. 

To keep Black people out of white neighborhoods, America invented redlining, the New Deal-era practice of designating Black neighborhoods as less desirable and locking Black folks into houses they couldn’t sell for profit. That practice was outlawed in the 70s, but it all but ensured that schools in those districts, funded through property taxes, would suffer. They simply did not have the resources to match schools in whiter, more affluent communities.

And the damage persists. Without adequate funding, Black students in chronically resource-starved schools are often taught by younger, inexperienced teachers who aren’t being paid very well. Black students are also 1.2 times more likely to encounter a law enforcement officer than a school counselor — hardly the support they need to thrive. And, Black students are more than twice as likely to “receive a referral to law enforcement or be subject to a school-related arrest” than their white peers.

This is the reality our community feels and suffers from every day. 

Even for Black children who, like me, made it out of underfunded schools to head to historically Black colleges and universities, the news is not much better.

The HBCU network of more than 100 schools does an incredible job for our community, matriculating 10% of all Black students and graduating half of the nation’s Black doctors, lawyers, and teachers. 

Still, a 2023 Department of Education report found that HBCUs in 16 states have been underfunded by some $12 billion. Heartbreaking, if not fully surprising. 

America cannot thrive if it continues to deny equal rights and opportunity to Black people.

Despite our endless push for education, even when it meant hiding knowledge for fear of abuse and death, America has yet to truly, meaningfully invest in schools that serve Black children.

I do not pretend that I alone can cure this ill, but I wake up every day in my position here at the AFT striving to ensure all our students — but especially our Black students — are getting the education they want so they can have the future they deserve. 

We do this by helping distribute millions of free books to kids and families. We do this by pushing for more career and technical education programs that offer kids multiple pathways to the American dream. We do this by rallying with local and state leaders to push back against extremist policies that target our children, our communities, and our history. 

We do this work because we know that a democracy cannot thrive if one community is repeatedly — persistently — starved of resources. And we know that America cannot thrive if it continues to deny equal rights and opportunity to Black people, who have fought, cried and died in a seemingly endless struggle to ensure their home country lives up to its founding promise of liberty and justice for all.

Fedrick C. Ingram is the secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers.