Foon Rhee

Economic divide between schools shortchanges our kids

Alexis Vang, 17, a senior at Sunnyside High School, looks at her smartphone Aug. 19 on a Fresno Unified School District bus now equipped with Wi-Fi.
Alexis Vang, 17, a senior at Sunnyside High School, looks at her smartphone Aug. 19 on a Fresno Unified School District bus now equipped with Wi-Fi.

As California’s children go back to school, we can all learn something from a lesson, however depressing, on how much the economic gap between school districts can shortchange students.

A new study points out that nearly half of America’s school kids live in high-poverty districts that are often right next to much richer ones that offer far greater educational opportunities. The EdBuild analysis highlights the 50 most economically segregated pairs of school districts, where the average difference in poverty rate is 37 percentage points, more than five times the national average.

These districts are in 14 states, mostly in the Rust Belt, but California isn’t immune. The list includes Perris Elementary School District in Riverside County, which has a poverty rate among school-age children of 50 percent and which is adjacent to two wealthier districts.

No. 49 on the list is the Fresno Unified School District, which has a 46 percent student poverty rate and borders the Golden Valley Unified School District, where the poverty rate is 12 percent. The state’s fourth-largest school district, Fresno has about 74,000 students, while Golden Valley has 1,900 pupils.

Michael Hanson, Fresno Unified’s superintendent, says the study is another reminder of the challenges facing a public school system in a high-poverty city. But he makes clear that it’s not an excuse for mediocrity.

“The way to fight concentrated poverty is with concentrated education,” he says.

That means adding 30 minutes of classroom time at two-thirds of the district’s elementary schools and doubling preschool enrollment over the last four years. For those students, that will be the equivalent of an additional 1 1/2 school years when they reach middle school, Hanson says.

EdBuild, an advocacy group that wants to change how schools are funded, blames over-reliance on local property taxes, which gives wealthier communities a huge advantage. Its study found that average homes in those districts are worth $131,000 more than those in poorer districts, which have higher tax rates but still generate $4,500 less per student on average.

States in the South and West, which have countywide school districts that even out property value differences, are almost entirely absent from the list.

While California has 1,000 school districts scattered across 58 counties, about 60 percent of their funding comes from the state and only about 30 percent from property taxes and other local sources. Public schools are the largest item in the state budget.

In 2013, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature passed a new Local Control Funding Formula to provide more support to districts with large numbers of poor students and English learners and added more money – $2.1 billion the first year and $6 billion in 2015-16.

Fresno Unified is getting $154 million from the formula this year. While it isn’t enough, Hanson says, it has helped the district hire teachers and boost instruction and is already paying off in improving graduation rates and test scores. “We have a very steep hill to climb,” he says, “but I’m proud of what we’ve done.”

The new school funding formula isn’t perfect, but its goal is righteous.

By the numbers

National rank for selected pairs of neighboring school districts with the biggest gap in student poverty rates:

  • 1. Detroit, 49%, and Grosse Pointe, 7%
  • 2. Birmingham, Ala., 49%, and Vestavia Hills, 6%
  • 5. Dayton, Ohio, 47%, and Beavercreek, 7%
  • 6. Balsz, Ariz., 51%, and Scottsdale, 11%
  • 9. Sheridan, Colo., 49%, and Littleton, 9%
  • 30. Perris Elementary, 50%, and Corona Norco Unified, 13%
  • 37. Perris Elementary, 50%, and Menifee Union Elementary, 14%
  • 49. Fresno Unified, 46%, and Golden Valley Unified, 12%

Source: EdBuild