The development of public education in nineteenth century America marked a radical departure for government. For the first time, it created a social benefit available to all. Family resources and social standing theoretically became irrelevant to the enjoyment of an education meant to provide skills for pursuing economic opportunity and practicing democratic citizenship. Although public funding promised schools for everyone, in practice social origin and wealth have deeply influenced investment in education, with the greatest benefits going to the most privileged. Unequal resource allocations map patterns of power, with regional, class, gender, and racial dimensions. Nowhere have these power relations had more blatant, sustained, and well-documented consequences than on resources allotted to the education of African Americans.
Prior to the Civil War, no public funds were spent on the education of Blacks in the South. By the 1830s, in fact, most southern states had enacted laws that forbade the teaching of reading to people in bondage, though some 5% of slaves — often at considerable risk — managed to become literate by 1860. The denial of even the most rudimentary literacy skills helped forge a powerful connection between education and freedom. As historian James Anderson has noted, education for African Americans became “the contradiction of oppression.”1 Once free, the former slaves immediately went about creating schools with the most meager resources. “The freedmen’s efforts to educate themselves and their children,” wrote historian Eugene Genovese, “provide one of the most moving chapters in American social history … Northern white support played an important role, but the extent to which blacks with few resources and little experience scraped to pay for schools and teachers stands out like a miracle.”
With the military occupation of the South in 1867 and the calling of state constitutional conventions that had significant Black representation, the opportunity arose to institutionalize publicly funded education. Influential throughout the region in this effort, Blacks had the greatest leverage in South Carolina where they composed both a majority of the constitutional convention and three of the five members of the committee of education. Throughout the South, white Republican alliances with African Americans resulted in constitutions that provided for publicly funded schools, where in many cases the states previously had taken no responsibility. Although the promise of the constitutional provisions outstripped practice, public education not only increasingly served Blacks, but also whites who generally had been denied free schools previously. W.E.B. Du Bois was the first scholar to recognize that “the first great mass movement for public education at the expense of the state, in the South, came from Negroes.”
The provision of relatively equal but sparse funds for Black and white children tipped in favor of whites following the withdrawal of federal troops in 1877 and the restoration of white power in the South. In the North, local funding of schools prevailed. In contrast, the South relied heavily on state funding, whose chief beneficiaries were whites in blackbelt counties. At the state level, funding was divided fairly between Blacks and whites enrolled in school in each county. Once the county received the funds, however, school officials diverted resources from Black children to whites. Thus, in the black belt, where whites composed a small minority of the population, they were able to significantly enrich their schools at the expense of African Americans. It was common, for instance, to provide unequal funding for Black teachers, who exclusively taught African-American children by late in the nineteenth century. Historian Louis Harlan, for example, found that “in five Virginia black counties in 1907-08, Negro children were 70% of the school population, but salaries of Negro teachers were less than one-third of the counties’ total salary payments.”4 And in Georgia’s predominantly Black counties, whites were able to maintain relatively good schools without relying on any local taxation.
As long as Blacks had the vote and the Reconstruction constitutions were in force, there were limits to how unequally school funds were distributed. But beginning in the 1890s these limits dissolved. New constitutions were created and Blacks were disenfranchised. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessyv. Ferguson(1896) articulated the separate but equal doctrine, and Cumming v. School Board of Richmond County(1899) made it clear that white southerners were free to define this doctrine in ways that advantaged their own schools.
Against this altered legal scaffolding, whites’ increasing demand for education influenced the distribution of school funds. Following the Civil War, Blacks evidenced a much stronger desire for education than Southern whites. Yet the prospect of a higher literacy rate for Blacks posed a threat to the racial hierarchy. Starting in the 1880s, this was one factor that spurred whites’ investment in public education and made attractive the appropriation of funds designated for Black schools. The establishment of literacy requirements for voting and philanthropy-inspired educational campaigns directed exclusively to whites provided further demand for education and further incentive to siphon funds from Black schools.
Given whites’ hostility to the higher education of Blacks, discrimination in the provision of high schools was particularly glaring. In 1915, there were no public high schools for African Americans in 23 southern cities with populations of 20,000 or greater, including Atlanta, Charleston, Mobile, and New Orleans. Elementary schools for African Americans, though far more common, could scarcely be called public. James Anderson has suggested that these schools — often purchased, built, and maintained by Blacks — were essentially private schools owned by the government: “To have their privately financed schools recognized and even partially supported by state and local authorities, Black southerners had to deed to the state their contributions of money, land, and school equipment.”
Overall, the availability and quality of African-American schools did improve significantly during the first three decades of the twentieth century. The Rosenwald Fund, a private foundation which contributed substantially to building schools in the South, played an important role. But Rosenwald expenditures, as Anderson has shown, amounted to less than a largely impoverished Black population contributed in money, let alone uncompensated labor.8 Despite a Rosenwald-aided building campaign, which helped Black children reach parity in school enrollment with whites by 1940,9 the gap in funding between Black and white schools widened through the early decades of the twentieth century. In South Carolina, for instance, where Black political influence after the Civil War offered the greatest promise for egalitarian public schools, inequality became particularly extreme. During 1929-30, per-pupil expenditures for white children were $52.89 and for Black children $5.20. Mississippi was nearly as unequal, with $31.33 spent per white child and $5.94 spent per Black child. For the entire South, the respective figures were $42.39 and $15.86.
Funding disparities between the races in the South subsequently diminished.11 In part this was due to the success of the NAACP in winning suits requiring the equalization of teachers’ salaries between the races in the late 1930s and 1940s. More importantly, public officials provided additional funds for Black schools with the hope of preserving a Black labor force fleeing the South for northern industrial jobs. Finally, recognizing that African-American support of school desegregation was influenced by the desire to have the same resources for schools that whites enjoyed, the expenditure of greater funding for Black schools was meant to limit the Black demand for
desegregation following Brown v. Board of Educationin 1954.
In the North, however, a trend toward equalization was less clear. In general, the greater wealth of the North permitted much higher expenditures for the education of Black and white children than in the South. But there is evidence that the gap in funding grew larger as growing urban Black populations were increasingly segregated.12 Moreover, the impact of the civil rights movement on educational equity was limited not only by local school officials’ recalcitrance in the face of demands for desegregation in the early to mid-1960s, but also by the migration of both wealth and whites to suburbs. In 1950, cities had higher per-pupil expenditures in all but two of the twelve largest metropolitan areas. By 1964, suburbs outspent cities in seven of these metropolitan areas and significantly narrowed the gap in four others.13 By the time the courts acted vigorously to implement desegregation in the late 1960s and early 1970s, whites had become a minority in many city school systems. In an irony of school desegregation policy, holding on to whites often has outweighed concerns with racial justice. In particular, whites inordinately have benefited from magnet schools, which typically have received disproportionate shares of urban school revenues.
HOUSING AND EDUCATION
More broadly, whites have benefited from government policies that essentially created suburbs as preserves for the white race. For decades, the mortgage insurance program of the Federal Housing Administration required segregated housing and exhibited a strong preference for serving suburbs over cities; restrictive covenants, designed primarily to exclude Blacks, were legally enforceable until the late 1940s; local zoning ordinances have kept out the poor generally; and federal funds for highway construction rather than for urban infrastructure made suburbs accessible and cities less attractive.
Although urban African Americans regularly have paid higher tax rates than wealthier suburbanites as part of their ongoing quest for quality education, the results have been manifestly unfair. Higher taxation in the cities has produced smaller revenues than lower taxes in the suburbs. Even Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, meant to provide enhanced resources to low-income students, has not leveled the playing field, let alone provided a surplus of money to those in the most need.
Over time, reliance on regressive property taxes has diminished as states have taken more responsibility for educational finance. While in most cases the states have guaranteed a minimum level of funding to all districts, significant disparities remain. In the 1980s, for instance, the ten highest-spending elementary school districts in Illinois, New York, Ohio, and Texas outspent the ten lowest-spending districts by more than two and one-half times.15 Although these disparities are not technically race-based, African Americans, as well as Latinos and Native Americans, have been concentrated in lower-spending districts.
The inadequacy of state funding formulas to equalize educational expenditures generated a plethora of lawsuits at the state level once the Supreme Court in San Antonio v. Rodriguez (1973) ruled that state funding was not properly a federal matter. In recent years, the courts frequently have supported plaintiffs’ suits to overturn state funding systems. This was the case in Texas, where district-level expenditures varied from a little over $2,000 per pupil to slightly over $19,000 in 1985-86.16 Nonetheless, legislatures friendly to suburbanites, who strongly oppose equalization measures, for the most part have resisted implementing strongly redistributive policies.
The conservative mantra that money does not matter falls on deaf ears when the affluent see to the education of their own children. But their ears are likely to prick up when the education of other people’s children becomes the topic of discussion. At the turn of the century, when Southern governments brazenly gave whites a disproportionate share of school taxes, a South Carolina cotton grower was asked whether the school fund was distributed equitably. “I suppose it is,” he responded. “The money does the most good in the white schools.” 17 Variations on this perspective too frequently are on the lips of white people today. Perhaps the most prevalent one holds that the problem is not money but rather it is parents, since they don’t care about education. It follows from this sentiment that African Americans are unworthy beneficiaries of white taxpayers’ coerced largess. Such a justification of privilege ignores the perennial struggle of African Americans to attain an education that would contradict oppression, and it disregards the benefits whites have gained from Black efforts on behalf of free and universal schooling.