Is enrichment only for the rich? The ongoing divide in students based on income continues through school segregation

Kathy Giglio’s recollections of her time in high school in Bridgeport, Connecticut, include frequent lockdowns and the unsettling sound of gunfire echoing through the lobby. The classrooms were often devoid of basic supplies, and she went unnoticed when she skipped class. Broken desks and decades-old textbooks were the norm.

“It was evident that poverty played a significant role in the student and staff attitudes,” said Giglio, 34. “My high school felt chaotic, and learning took a backseat to life’s challenges.” Despite her daughter now attending school in the same district, the conditions remain largely unchanged.

Living in her childhood community among her parents and fellow people of color, Giglio, who is Latina, values the efforts to provide their children with better opportunities. The majority of Bridgeport residents are Black or Latino.

Through her work at an after-school program in Westport, which is a short distance away but feels like a world apart, Giglio has observed stark differences in educational experiences in the area. In Westport, students learn using electronic whiteboards, dine in cafeterias that extend into beautiful courtyards, and receive personalized tutoring for those in need.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the pivotal Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case, which declared school segregation unconstitutional. Despite the influx of relief funding post-COVID-19 to address disrupted learning, many schools continue to struggle in aiding students’ academic recovery, particularly those from low-income backgrounds. The discrepancies in school funding persist, posing a threat to exacerbating disparities once relief funds expire.

Exclusive data shared with USA TODAY reveals that, even within the same metropolitan area, affluent school districts often receive more funding per student compared to their lower-income counterparts. In numerous regions, state funding policies aimed at mitigating these gaps prove insufficient, as highlighted by findings from the Bellwether think tank’s analysis. Notably, some of the largest funding disparities are observed in blue states such as Connecticut, contrasting with more equitable funding distributions in red states like Texas. 

These revelations expose the pervasive influences perpetuating educational segregation, mirroring the circumstances that led to the Brown v. Board ruling. Despite progress in various spheres, the current allocation of school resources underscores the ongoing need for substantial improvements.

The repercussions of Brown v. Board: Divergent realities in the same urban area

Bellwether, a research nonprofit devoted to educational equity, analyzed 123 metropolitan areas across 38 states. In less than a third of these areas, low-income districts receive the highest funding per student, whereas wealthier districts claim the top spot in the majority of cases. Over half of the students in the study reside in metro areas where the most affluent communities enjoy greater resource allocation.

Disparities in funding often stem from intricate school district divisions within metro areas that yield vastly disparate tax revenues. Affluent neighborhoods generate substantial funding through property taxes on high-value homes, overshadowing the lesser investments allocated to poorer schools via state funding formulas geared toward equitable distribution.

“As the number of school districts within a metro area increases, so do the overall funding inequities,” noted Spurrier. This trend exposes the systemic challenges bred by varying levels of local wealth concentration.

Nationally, local property taxes contribute to approximately 37 percent of public schools’ total revenues, with wealthier regions often exceeding this average. While state funding mechanisms aim to bridge the financial gaps, they fall short in rectifying the stark contrasts in local revenue distributions.

For instance, in the greater Columbus, Ohio, area, affluent districts outstrip lower-income counterparts in per-pupil funding, maintaining a significant monetary advantage even post-state aid. Similar imbalances are evident in regions like the San Francisco Bay Area and Philadelphia, where elite districts amass considerable financial resources compared to their impoverished neighbors.

Adjacent communities.They starkly contrast in educational outcomes – intentionally.

Perpetual ‘normalized’ disparities

In Bridgeport, Connecticut, divergent funding levels translate into vastly dissimilar educational environments for underprivileged and affluent students. Despite the city’s higher local tax rate compared to places like Greenwich, the latter, an affluent suburb, secures greater per-pupil funding owing to its property values.

Wealthier districts in the Bridgeport vicinity, namely Greenwich, yield an average of $24,922 per student in local revenue, overshadowing the meager amounts allocated to Bridgeport and Danbury, neighboring impoverished cities, by $18,325. State funding attempts to alleviate this discrepancy with an additional $6,763, yet elite districts still maintain an $11,548 per-pupil funding advantage post-supplemental aid.

According to a comprehensive study conducted by the New America think tank, Connecticut hosts some of the most unequal juxtaposed school districts in the country. Economic distinctions aligned with stark racial divides persist in Connecticut, perpetuating funding disparities and exacerbating educational inequities.

Steven Hernández, executive director of ConnCAN, a local advocacy organization, attributed these inequities to Connecticut’s historical legacies, rooted in dividing borders along religious, economic, racial, and ethnic lines. While some of these deep-rooted divisions reflect bygone eras, their repercussions endure, impacting current students.

“Each town prides itself on its unique identity,” Hernández remarked. However, he underscored the prevailing division between the privileged and underprivileged. “Today, the prominent distinction lies between those with resources and those without,” he added.

Francisca Gabriel García, of Bridgeport, highlighted the recurring requests for basic supplies from her daughters' school.

During discussions with USA TODAY, numerous Bridgeport parents and students emphasized the scarcity of essential resources in their education system.

Chantal Almonte, an immigrant parent from the Dominican Republic, expressed satisfaction with her children’s teachers but deplored the deplorable school facilities. Her son suffered from recurring headaches during a heatwave due to the absence of air conditioning in his school.

Francisca Gabriel García, a Bridgeport resident hailing from Mexico, looks after her niece and children and has firsthand witnessed the stark funding disparities across school campuses. Before her daughters’ enrollment in a magnet program, her niece feared attending her previous school due to structural concerns resulting in frequent closures. She recounted receiving weekly homework packets accompanied by requests for basic supplies like paper towels and crayons.

“I am puzzled – why do neighboring towns like Fairfield and Trumbull, reputed for superior systems, outshine us, especially given that we contribute taxes as well?” Gabriel García questioned in Spanish, also serving as a community advocate. “I fear for my daughters’ competitiveness when they reach high school.”

Tracey Elizabeth Garcia (left) and Arantza Victoria Gonzalez Cardenas (middle) highlight the entrenched disparities between their hometown and neighboring communities, perpetuating systemic inequalities. They advocate for educational equity through Make the Road Connecticut.

Giglio contemplated relocating to a different district to secure essential support, like tutoring, for her daughter diagnosed with ADHD. However, she found this endeavor nearly unattainable, citing the exorbitant housing costs. In Westport, where Giglio works, the median sold home price stands at $2.3 million.

The normalized deprivation has engulfed Tracey Elizabeth Garcia, a 15-year-old freshman in Bridgeport, whose academic journey is marred by resource scarcity. Transitioning from inadequate gluesticks to the absence of sufficient college preparatory resources like counselors, Garcia faces impediments in her academic trajectory.

Mutable district boundaries: A closer look at arbitrary segregations

While the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling addressed racial segregation, it overlooked the subtler yet pervasive disparities in school funding. Recent studies illuminate how financial discrepancies parallel racial lines, with reports indicating that districts with a higher proportion of students of color receive significantly less funding than predominantly white districts.

To redress these entrenched disparities, Bellwether suggests that states must increase funding to poorer districts with substantial gaps by over 20% on average. However, the viability of such substantial funding boosts remains questionable. Instead, creating limits on districts’ access to local tax revenues or implementing policies for equitable revenue distribution within metro areas could serve as feasible solutions. District consolidation is another avenue worth exploring.

“School district demarcations are arbitrary,” remarked Preston Green, an educational leadership and law professor at the University of Connecticut specializing in funding and segregation dynamics. He emphasized the potential for redrawing district lines to mitigate systemic inequities.

However, the political intricacies surrounding district reshuffling pose a significant hurdle, as highlighted by parent perspectives. Elizabeth Robinson, a mother in Bridgeport, acknowledged the potential benefits of district consolidation from the city’s vantage point but acknowledged contrasting views likely from affluent locales like Southport. The median home price in Southport stands at $1.2 million.

Connecticut’s entrenched traditions of educational governance have perpetuated systemic disparities, fostering a tacit acceptance of status quo inequities. Hernández, representing ConnCAN, underscored the challenges posed by these ingrained norms, hindering substantive progress toward equitable education. “The silent complicity between the privileged and underprivileged ensures economic discrepancies endure,” Hernández remarked, revealing the underlying budgetary determinants shaping educational destinies.

Conflicting perceptions:Parental optimism clashes with the harsh realities of educational disparities.

The persistent educational inequities compel families with the means to seek alternative educational opportunities. Several Bridgeport families interviewed by USA TODAY revealed their decisions to pursue schools outside the city to escape substandard conditions.

Jackson Thomas, now attending a Trumbull private school with financial aid, highlighted the stark contrast in safety and educational quality, transitioning from academic struggles to remarkable progress and involvement in extracurricular activities. Arantza Victoria Gonzalez Cardenas similarly praised the organized, nurturing learning environment in Milford, underscoring the transformative differences in her educational journey.

Arlene Harris-Webber highlighted the push for Bridgeport families to seek private education alternatives due to perceived success barriers in local schools.

Numerous mothers engaged in a local parent leadership institute voiced their willingness to support the Bridgeport system if reciprocal investment in their children’s success ensued.

“In Bridgeport, private schools are considered a necessity for genuine student achievement,” remarked Arlene Harris-Webber, sharing how her son was denied specialized services in Bridgeport schools despite testing in the top percentile. “Why does his academic success falter if his potential is so high?”

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