Can School Finance Reform Support Reparations?

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Scholars advocate reforming and regulating school funding schemes to grant reparations to Black Americans.

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Black students are overrepresented in the poorest schools in the nation.

Today’s school funding disparities persist despite over 65 years of litigation aiming to eradicate them. In San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld school funding disparities resulting from local governments’ reliance on property taxes for funding. The Court further declined to involve itself in school funding matters, and it has not taken up the issue again.

In a recent article, Preston C. Green III of the University of Connecticut Neag School of Education, Bruce D. Baker of the Rutgers Graduate School of Education, and Joseph O. Oluwole of Montclair State University argue that school finance litigation incompletely remedies the harms imposed upon schools serving Black communities. Green, Baker, and Oluwole instead call for a reparations program for Black Americans that includes a school finance reform agenda. They argue that this agenda should be enacted through state-level legislation and subsequently supported and regulated by federal actors.

Green, Baker, and Oluwole argue that reparations—which they define as “a program of acknowledgement, redress, and closure of a grievance”—must provide restitution to Black Americans in a number of areas, including education. The most viable way to provide education-based reparations, they contend, is to reform school finance in a way that prioritizes the redistribution of property tax dollars to support Black American students more effectively.

Green, Baker, and Oluwole propose a four-part legislative framework states could use to change how public schools are financed in service of a reparations program that offers recourse to Black Americans. Their framework targets the effects of housing discrimination and offers four state-level financial remedies to address them.

The first remedy would require states to calculate Black-white differences in local real estate tax revenues arising from segregation and allocate additional funding per Black student to close such gaps across school districts.

The second remedy would encourage states to compensate for inequitable residential taxation by offering rebates to Black property tax payers.

The third remedy would similarly urge states to reverse school finance policies built on systemic racism and repay school districts affected by such racism.

The final remedy, Green, Baker, and Oluwole suggest, would obligate states to compensate for any additional costs associated with remedying the educational outcomes of students in racially isolated school districts. 

Green, Baker, and Oluwole’s proposed remedies do not end with state-level efforts. They argue that because the federal government played a role in creating the enduring gaps in Black-white school funding through discriminatory redlining practices, it must play a part in any reparations program that addresses inequitable school funding. Specifically, the authors explain how the federal government can take certain legislative and regulatory actions to complement states’ school finance reform efforts in service of ensuring reparations for Black Americans.

Green, Baker, and Oluwole suggest that Congress could provide resources to states to eradicate Black-white gaps in school funding pursuant to its authority granted by the Spending Clause of the U.S. Constitution. They also propose that Congress pass legislation granting additional funding to states for school districts experiencing Black racial isolation.

Beyond such legislative efforts, though, Green, Baker, and Oluwole recommend that the U.S. Department of Education support states in eliminating school funding disparities through its enforcement of regulations arising out of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Although the Supreme Court established in Alexander v. Sandoval that the provisions of Title VI prohibit only intentional discrimination, the statute’s implementing regulations confer on the Education Department the authority to prohibit recipients of federal funds from enacting policies that disparately impact protected classes of people. Pursuant to that authority, the Education Department may investigate educational entities receiving federal money whenever there is indication of a failure to comply with the mandates of Title VI.

The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is responsible for ensuring compliance with the regulations implementing Title VI. OCR has yet to use its regulatory authority to address racialized school funding disparities at the state level. It has, however, recognized inequitable school funding regimes as a problem and has encouraged states to examine their school funding formulas to ensure compliance with Title VI.

Green, Baker, and Oluwole urge OCR to begin investigating state-level racial disparities in school funding to help states eradicate inequities. Ultimately, they see that OCR’s regulatory enforcement efforts could help to sustain the proposed state-level reforms. These reforms are needed to provide more adequate funding to schools serving Black American students, which could help deconstruct the harmful legacy of U.S. residential segregation, Green, Baker, and Oluwole conclude.