Op-Ed: COVID-19 highlights racial inequities in school funding

Mark Weber | October 15, 2020 | Opinion, Education
Review of state data shows that students of color lack the same instruction options during the pandemic as do their white counterparts
Mark Weber

Disparities in education are nothing new for New Jersey. But the current pandemic has heightened the differences in schooling between students of different races: The latest data confirm that white students are more likely to have access to at least some in-person schooling, compared to students of color.

And the differences in schooling, according to an analysis I’ve published with the New Jersey Policy Perspective, appear to be driven by differences in funding.

This past summer, the Murphy administration urged New Jersey’s school districts to prepare to open the doors of their buildings at least part-time for students. Districts could implement “hybrid” schooling plans, where students would mix online and in-person learning. Students would be separated into cohorts that would switch off between attending school and learning from home; this way, social distancing could be maintained in smaller classes.

It quickly became apparent, however, that some school districts would not be able to implement a hybrid plan in time for the September opening of school. Superintendents across the state began requesting waivers, which the state reviewed and, in many cases, granted.

A look at the available data

On Sept. 13, NJ Spotlight News published a list of districts that had been granted waivers, as well as the plans of most other school districts and charter schools for the fall. In our analysis, we combined this list with enrollment and fiscal data to determine how school reopening plans might be different for students of different races.

Our analysis shows that only about one-third of New Jersey’s students are in a district that offers a hybrid plan. It is important to understand that this doesn’t mean these students are actually participating in hybrid learning: New Jersey has required districts to offer families the option of enrolling students in full-time distance learning if they choose to.

But over one-half of students don’t have a choice: They are attending schools where the year started with fully remote learning. Of course, these plans are fluid, and it is the state’s goal that all districts offer at least some in-person learning as the year progresses. But the student population differences between schools that started with different programs is both striking and telling.

Six out of 10 students who are in hybrid plans are white, while only a quarter are Black or Hispanic. This is almost exactly the opposite for remote plans: Only 29% of students enrolled in districts that offer only remote instruction are white, while 58% are Black or Hispanic.

Put simply: If you’re a white student in New Jersey, you’re much more likely than a Black or Hispanic student to be in a district that offers at least some in-person instruction.

A look beyond the numbers

There are several possible reasons for this disparity. National polls have shown that the parents of students of color are more reluctant to send their children back to school buildings during the pandemic. It may be that districts enrolling larger numbers of these students are responding to parent desires by focusing on improving remote instruction, rather than preparing to move to a hybrid model.

But parents of color also believe that their children’s schools are underfunded compared to white children’s schools. Underfunded schools are more likely to be crowded and to have older, outdated infrastructure, including HVAC systems, which exchange and purify air. It may be that parents of color are less willing to have their children return to their schools because they know those schools are less safe than schools in majority white districts.

Our analysis confirms that schools in underfunded districts are more likely to offer only remote instruction. The School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) sets a funding target that represents the spending needed to provide students with an adequate education. But many districts don’t spend enough to meet that target; some spend so little the gap between the target and actual spending is greater than $5,000 per student. Of the approximately 130,000 students who are enrolled in these severely underfunded schools, nearly all are also enrolled in a district that only offers remote learning.

This makes sense. A school district that is underfunded is less likely to maintain its facilities properly, and less likely to have enough personnel to offer both in-person and online learning in a pandemic. But it’s also more likely to enroll many students of color — and that’s a problem. Because as good as New Jersey’s schools are on average, they still aren’t properly educating many students who are enrolled in districts that are inadequately funded.

The pandemic is revealing an uncomfortable truth: Too many of New Jersey’s children are attending schools that do not have the resources they need to successfully educate their students, especially during a health emergency. Yes, we are facing an imminent fiscal crisis, and we must be wise about how we manage the state’s budget in the days ahead.

But we can’t allow New Jersey’s disparities in school funding to continue. The pandemic is showing us that there are very real and serious consequences when we underfund our schools. We must address this inequity, and we can’t wait for the coronavirus to fade away before we do.