A Call for State-by-State Campaigns to End Inequitable School Funding and Segregation

As we near the quarter mark of the 21st century, two longstanding and severe deficits continue to dominate the American public education landscape. The first is the consignment of low-income students and students of color to underfunded and under-resourced schools. Second is the intense isolation of students by race and socio-economic status in segregated schools across the country.

In a new report – Equity and Diversity: Defining the Right to Education for the 21st Century – noted education rights lawyer David Sciarra offers a bold path forward to remedy the entrenched school inequity and school segregation that continues to undermine equal educational opportunity for our nation’s children.

Drawing on decades of experience as a school finance litigator, Mr. Sciarra proposes a “unified and expansive” definition of the right to education enshrined in each state’s constitution:

Under this definition, the right to equal educational opportunity encompasses both equitable funding and the opportunity for an education in diverse schools and learning environments. The pursuit of both equity and diversity, we contend, is essential to make meaningful progress in the historical quest to deliver a “constitutional education” to all students, particularly low-income students and students of color consigned to intensely segregated public schools across the nation.

In this constitutional rights framework, equity means students have the resources needed for them to achieve now, even if in schools segregated by poverty and race. Diversity means all students have the opportunity to learn in schools with peers from differing races and socio-economic backgrounds to prepare them for the rapidly evolving, multi-racial, multi-cultural society and democracy they will enter upon graduation.

Effectuating the right to equitable and diverse schools demands a singular focus on the unit of government legally responsible for education: the states. While Congress and school boards have important roles, state legislatures and governors are affirmatively obligated under their constitutions to maintain and support the state’s public schools. It is state law, policy and enforcement practices that either advance or impede a child’s access to equal educational opportunity.

The report lifts up the two interrelated state policies that deprive students of a constitutional education: inequitable school funding and segregative district and school assignment. And just as state lawmakers cause inequity and segregation, they can end it by putting in place the “building blocks” essential for equitable and diverse schools.

Three state policies are the building blocks for equitable schools, especially in districts segregated by poverty and race:

  • Cost-based, weighted student funding;
  • Universal, high quality early education; and
  • Needs-based financing for safe and adequate school buildings.

Four state policy reforms comprise the building blocks for diverse schools for all students:

  • Redrawing district boundaries and school attendance zones;
  • Implementing or expanding inter-district transfer programs;
  • Prohibiting segregative district successions; and
  • Utilizing multi-district magnet and specialized schools.

Mr. Sciarra issues a call for a 21st-century movement to put an end to inequitable school funding and school segregation in the states. This call to action requires the collective courage to confront the stark reality of “the fault lines of race and class that have fueled stubborn resistance to change for decades.”

The movement also requires breaking down past divides among advocates fighting for equitable funding and those pressing for integration. And it demands that organizers, parents, lawyers, researchers, educators, unions and taxpayers build multifaceted campaigns, state by state, sustained for a long haul “historical project,” not a one-off policy reform or “episodic activism.”

    “In this report, David Sciarra hits the nail on the head, offering a bright-eyed framing that brings the twin challenges of segregation and unequal funding under one umbrella,” said Derek Black, University of South Carolina Law Professor and education rights scholar. “Until states address segregation and funding together, they will continue to deny students’ their right to education. As intractable as these problems may seem, this report also offers a set of proven solutions that are at our fingertips, limited only by our political will to act.”

    Mr. Sciarra served as Executive Director of Education Law Center from 1996 to 2023. During that time, he was lead counsel for New Jersey’s urban students in the landmark Abbott v. Burke school finance litigation. Among his many publications, he is co-author of “From Courthouse to Statehouse – And Back Again: The Role of Litigation in School Funding Reform” and ELC’s annual report on school funding in the states “Making the Grade: How Fair is School Funding in Your State.”

    Press Contact:

    Sharon Krengel
    Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications
    973-624-1815, x 240

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    Press Contact:
    Sharon Krengel
    Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications
    973-624-1815, x240