Class and Racial Disparities in School Construction Spending

Algernon Austin presents an excellent, concise, and wonderfully read scholarly examination of the complicated landscape of race, class and popular perception. Besides the prison industrial complex, black strides in education, poverty rates, crime and other indices contradict claims that blacks are “moving backward.”
--Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Director, Institute for African American Studies, University of Connecticut and author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (The Johns Hopkins University Press), 2004 and Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (University Press of Kansas), 2007.

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Many people focus on the general disparities in school funding as an explanation for disparities in educational outcomes. This is an important point, but it is not as precise an argument as it could be. Critics point out that there are schools with high levels of funding that have low educational outcomes.

The issue is not merely how much dollars in general is going to a school. Some schools are in areas with higher costs of living. Some schools cost more to run. Some schools are better managed than others. These and other factors may absorb additional dollars in school funding without necessarily producing increases in school quality. The better argument, therefore, is about school quality. Predominantly black schools are more likely to be low-quality schools than predominantly white schools. People should make arguments specifically about reducing the disparities in school quality rather than school funding.

In general, however, there is a relationship between school quality and school funding. This relationship is probably particularly strong when one looks at the amount of dollars spent on school construction. Growth and Disparity: A Decade of U.S. Public School Construction by Building Educational Success Together (BEST) allows us to look at the class and race disparities in public school construction spending.

High income areas spent nearly three times as much on school construction as low income areas. In zip code areas where the median household income was at least $100,000, $11,500 per student was spent on school construction. In zip code areas where the median household income was less than $20,000, only $4,140 was spent on school construction.

There was a weaker disparity by the race of the school district. Predominantly white school districts spent about a third more than predominantly minority school districts. School districts that were more than 90 percent white spent $7,102 per student, but school districts that were more than 90 percent minority spent $5,172 per student.

Although the quality of school buildings may not be a common school quality measure, it matters for educational outcomes. BEST states, “An increasing body of research indicates that poor building conditions such as a lack of temperature control, poor indoor air quality, insufficient daylight, overcrowded classrooms, and a lack of specialty classrooms are obstacles to academic achievement.” Having science labs that are up-to-date and working and other good facilities also probably provide some educational benefit. In America’s schools, wealthier and whiter schools tend to have all of these things and poorer and blacker schools tend not to.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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