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Janresseger: Cutting Through the Culture War Distractions to Preserve Public Education

In Schoolhouse Burning, the important recent book about the history of public education since the Civil War and the protection of public schooling by the provisions of the 50 state constitutions, Derek Black declares: “Public education represents a commitment to a nation in which a day laborer’s son can go to college, own a business, maybe even become president. It represents a nation in which every person has a stake in setting the rules by which society will govern itself, where the waitress’s children learn alongside of and break bread with the senator’s and CEO’s children. Public education represents a nation where people from many different countries, religions and ethnic backgrounds come together as one for a common purpose around common values.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 250)

Right now, of course, Chris Rufo, the right-wing linguistic reframer and political provocateur, has taken upon himself the mission of undermining the very values Derek Black proclaims. Rufo and his political allies at the national level and across the statehouses are intentionally frightening parents—making them fear children who are different. They have made the topic of the day their hope to eliminate “Diversity, Equityand Inclusion,” to shut down any curriculum that honors the history and culture of children who are not part of the dominant culture, and to undermine our sense of responsibility for providing equal opportunity. Our statehouses and national politics are being sidetracked by ideologues seeking to silence classroom conversation about how our nation’s past has shaped the present moment and by lavishly funded lobbyists pushing politicians to grant families public tax dollars to pay for their children’s escape from the public schools. We are surrounded by a maelstrom of argument designed to make us forget about our responsibility to the public schools “where people from many different countries, religions, and ethnic backgrounds come together as one for a common purpose around common values.”

Responding to the education culture war provocateurs is essential for those of us who care about public schooling, but it is also a distraction from the difficult essential issues we hardly see in the news anymore. I was jolted by Erica Frankenberg’s concise update last week about the persistence of racial segregation in public schools across the states.  My surprise wasn’t about the existence of continuing racial segregation and its contribution to inequality; I simply hadn’t noticed any attention to this reality for several months.

Frankenberg, a professor of education and demographics at Penn State University, begins: “Brown vs. Board of Education, the pivotal Supreme Court decision that made school segregation unconstitutional, turns 70 years old on May 17, 2024.”  She continues with a concise history of the long resistance to compliance with the Supreme Court’s decision, and updates the situation as we begin 2024:

“Public school students today are the most racially diverse in US. history. At the time of Brown, about 90% of students were white and most other students were Black., Today, according to a 2022 federal report, 46% of public students are white, 28% are Hispanic, 15% are Black, 6% are Asian, 4% multiracial, and 1% are American Indian. Based on my analysis of 2021 federal education data, public schools in 22 states and Washington, D.C., served majorities of students of color. And yet, public schools are deeply segregated. In 2021, approximately 60% of Black and Hispanic public school students attended schools where 75% or more of students were students of color. Black and Hispanic students who attend racially segregated schools also are overwhelmingly enrolled in high-poverty schools.”

What is the financial consequence of racial segregation? Frankenberg explains: “A 2019 report by EdBuild… found that schools in predominantly nonwhite districts received $23 billion less in funding each year than schools in majority white districts. This equates to roughly $2,200 less per student per year.”

Every year the Education Law Center publishes the Making the Grade report on school funding fairness. The news in the most recent Making the Grade, released in December, compliments Frankenberg’s brief on the impact of racial segregation. Here is the this year’s brief summary of the situation at the end of 2023: “Vast disparities in per-pupil funding levels persist with the highest funded state (New York) spending two and a half times more per pupil than the lowest funded state (Idaho), even after adjusting for regional cost differences. Far too few states progressively distribute funds to high-poverty districts: more than half the states… have either flat or regressive funding distributions that disadvantage high-poverty districts… (T)he worst funded states are often guilty of low effort, indicating a failure to prioritize public education.”

And instead of raising their investment in schools, many states have reduced budgetary allocations for public education: “Nationally PK-12 education saw the smallest annual increase in combined state and local funding since the Great Recession. Fourteen states reduced total state and local revenue for education at exactly the moment when schools needed more resources to deal with the unprecedented challenges of interrupted learning, virtual or hybrid schedules, and health and safety concerns. In Alaska, Nebraska, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming, declining revenues disproportionately affected high-poverty districts and caused these states to become either less progressive or more regressive.”

The Education Law Center concludes the introduction to its comprehensive report with this warning: “A fair, equitable, and adequate (state) school funding formula is the basic building block of a well-resourced and academically successful school system for all students. A strong funding foundation is even more critical for low-income students, students of color, English learners, students with disabilities, and students facing homelessness, trauma, and other challenges.  These students, and the schools that serve them, need additional staff programs, and supports to put them on the same footing as their peers.”

Persistent racial and economic segregation in U.S. public schools and inequity and inadequacy of public school finance are merely two of today’s educational challenges, but they among the most serious causes of educational injustice. We can be sure, however, that the culture war missionaries who want to eliminate diversity and inclusion, are not worried about segregation. And as they openly state their opposition to equity, we can assume that public school funding is of little concern. The culture warriors and their political allies have been busy expanding all kinds of private school tuition vouchers and fighting for the right of parents to insulate their children (at public expense) from exposure to the rich diversity that defines our society.

Underneath the noisy distraction of the culture wars, however, serious structural challenges for public schooling require our attention. Only a public committed to public investment in the common good and expanding the opportunity to learn for every child can ensure the future of the public institution that Derek Black describes: “Public education represents a nation where people from many different countries, religions and ethnic backgrounds come together as one for a common purpose around common values.”


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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working ...