Since the Puritans set up the first public schools in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, local school districts have largely relied on property taxes for funding. In 1973, Demetrio Rodriguez sued the state of Texas, accusing it of violating the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment on the grounds that his children in the predominantly Mexican American West Side of San Antonio were not receiving adequate funding for their schools. The case advanced to the Supreme Court, which ultimately held that the school-funding mechanisms in Texas were constitutional. In his opinion, Justice Powell stated that the system of school funding in Texas “was not the product of purposeful discrimination against any class, but instead was a responsible attempt to arrive at practical and workable solutions to the educational problems.”
Justice Powell’s opinion, however, seems to under-appreciate the extent to which resource allocation allows students to receive any semblance of a quality education. It also reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about how systemic inequality perpetuates itself—it need not exist under the pretense of being purposeful in order to be real.
The federal government has never stepped up in a substantive way establish more equitable funding practices. Lyndon Johnson—who had, as a young man, taught fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders in an impoverished school for the children of Mexican immigrants in the Rio Grande—signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act into law in 1965 as part of his War on Poverty, giving schools some federal funding to reduce the disparities between rich and poor school districts. But the federal government still contributes only 10 percent to the cost of running public schools in the United States, less than its counterparts in most other developed countries in the world. Per the National Center for Education Statistics, 93 percent of education expenditures come from state and local funding. As a result, as disparities in wealth and income continue to expand, so do the disparities in school funding. As The Atlantic’s Alana Semuels has previously pointed out, in the 2014-15 school year the schools in the wealthy Greenwich, Connecticut, spent $6,000 more per pupil as compared to the impoverished city of Bridgeport, in the same state.
Madison spends nearly $20,000 per student, far more than most K-12 taxpayer supported Districts.