Over the last two decades, the debate over school funding has reached a frenzied pitch across the United States. This process is a direct outcome of the battles surrounding the Brown v. Board of Education – Topeka, Kansas decision by the Supreme Court in 1954. When the Brown decision announced the first substantive challenge to the prevalence of racial segregation (and the underlying belief in African inferiority), the response from most white authorities in both the public and private sectors was unequivocal. “Stop”, or, at best, “slow down.” The movement of federal legislative to support the momentum towards racial integration and equality stumbled over obstacles and resistance ranging from George Wallace to Barry Goldwater to Richard Nixon. By 1972, the transformation of the United States by the Civil Rights Movement stagnated. By 1988, the obstructionists had turned the will of the federal legislative and executive branches against any efforts to dismantle racial segregation in neighborhoods, schools, or global conglomerates. Senator Orrin Hatch’s successful effort to amend the Fair Housing Act marked the end of a forty-year campaign to provide equal opportunity to all Americans.
The root of the educational funding disparities began a generation earlier in Milliken v. Bradley when the Court declared that students could not be bused into suburban school districts from neighboring cities. In the context of metropolitan growth and the development of a global service economy, the isolation of urban school districts decimated the revenue base in those areas and created an economic division of educational access on top of the existing racial barriers that had not fallen. By 1996, white resentment at the mechanisms designed to provide fair access manifested in a series of Supreme Court decisions from Hopwood v. University of Texas Law School to Gratz v. Bollinger. When Justice Sandra Day O’Connor suggested that racial disparities would disappear over the next generation, she opined with an optimism that did not recognize the steadfast efforts to maintain racial inequality under the guise of economic competitiveness. Thus, in 2010, communities, states, and the nation as a whole grapples with lower state revenues and virtually no will to make financial sacrifices for the common good. Racial divisions – maintained by a generation of segregationist instincts from 1972 to 1988, reinforced by suburban resentments about economic instability – prevent the conversations about saving our schools, calming our housing markets, or local corporate responsibility. Political fragmentation – the existence of multiple municipal services (fire, police, schools, planning) – is one of the most profound costs of this silence about race. Unless suburban communities can consolidate across racial lines, unless cities and suburbs work together to share resources and obligations, unemployment, poverty, and debt will continue to increase for all of us. We must re-design our municipal, county, state, and federal structures to minimize costs and to empower working Americans everywhere.