OPINION: The Supreme Court ruling on race in college admissions ignores bigger inequities that must be addressed

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As a professor, I’ve benefited tremendously by having racially diverse students in my classes. For me, there is no question that the U.S. Supreme Court erred by striking down affirmative action last month.

There have since been many thoughtful and persuasive pieces about the decision, including those arguing that Asian Americans have been used as a racial wedge against Black and Latino students and that “ ‘Race Neutral’ Is the New ‘Separate but Equal.’

Yet the prolonged “for or against” framing of this debate has missed out on how affirmative action is a policy that attempts to address only the tip of the iceberg of racial inequity in the K–12 public school system. Driving that overall inequity is the inequity in funding.

Related: Supreme Court makes its historic ruling in affirmative action cases

Many Black and Latino students never make it to college. Nationally, 37 percent of Black youth (defined as 18-24-year-olds) and 36 percent of Latino youth enroll, compared to 42 percent of white youth and 59 percent of Asian American youth.

In Philadelphia, 49 percent of students who graduated from public high schools matriculated to a college or university, a number that does not account for the 19 percent pushout or dropout rate of students who did not graduate from high school.

Only 10 percent of Philadelphia public school students went on to earn a college degree.

Given these statistics, affirmative action is not the racial justice hill that I will die on. The debate around affirmative action threatens to obscure a broader struggle for racial justice in K-12 education — the fight for racially equitable school funding.

Affirmative action is not the racial justice hill that I will die on.

Nationwide, there is a $23 billion school funding gap between majority white and majority nonwhite districts. Addressing the K-12 racial school funding gap is a more urgent need that will make a greater impact on Black and Latino students across the country.

In Pennsylvania, a 2016 study revealed that the whiter the school district, the more state funding it received relative to its “fair share”; and the more Black and Latino students in a school district, the less state funding it received per student. The fair share calculation, defined by the state, accounts for extra costs related to poverty and the relative number of English Language Learners and other factors.

The study’s author estimated that Philadelphia, a majority-Black and Latino school district, received $400 million less than its fair share.

The inequities are so stark that a Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania judge recently ruled that the state’s school finance system is unconstitutional and in need of reform.

Related: An analysis of achievement gaps in every school in America shows that poverty is the biggest hurdle

Why did the well-intended fair share calculation fail to promote funding equity? And, relatedly, why did some coalition “advocates” undermine equitable school funding proposals? To understand this, I conducted fieldwork and interviews with state legislators and school funding advocates.

I found that powerful state leaders and the most politically connected advocates refused to challenge Pennsylvania’s racial school funding status quo. Instead, they used their positions of power to protect the preexisting policy proven to reproduce racial school funding inequities in state aid and actively thwart racial equity proposals at every turn.

By doing so, they helped predominantly white districts, many of which were dues-paying members of advocates’ organizations, maintain the school funding privileges to which they had become accustomed.

Writing about the U.S., Cheryl Harris, a professor at UCLA, said whiteness “enshrine[s] the status quo as a neutral baseline, while masking the maintenance of white privilege and domination.”

So, while the Supreme Court ruling has placed much of the attention on affirmative action, let’s not lose sight of the fact that so few Black and Latino students make it into college in the first place.

To fight for the many and not just the few means looking beyond affirmative action and advocating for racially equitable K-12 school funding systems.

State legislators who wield tremendous power over education funding and, by extension, the quality of education that Black and Latino students receive, have escaped accountability for far too long.

It’s time to demand that they create systems of school finance that provide Black and Latino students the education they deserve.

Roseann Liu is the author of Designed to Fail: Why Racial Equity in School Funding Is So Hard to Achieve, which will be published in April 2024. She is an assistant professor of education studies at Wesleyan University and a visiting assistant professor of Asian American Studies at Swarthmore College.

This story about the K-12 racial school funding gap was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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