Too often, low-income, black and Latino students end up in schools with crumbling walls, old textbooks and unqualified teachers, according to a report released Thursday by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
The commission said inequities are caused by the fact that schools are most funded with state and local tax dollars. More than 92 percent of funding comes from nonfederal sources, according to the Education Department.
The resulting imbalance renders "the education available to millions of American public school students profoundly unequal," the commission said.
For instance, the authors said, 33 percent of high schools with high black and Latino enrollment offer calculus, compared with 56 percent of high schools with low black and Latino student populations. Nationwide, 48 percent of schools offer the rigorous math course.
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On average, school districts spend around $11,000 per student each year, but the highest-poverty districts receive an average of $1,200 less per child than the least-poor districts, while districts serving the largest numbers of minority students get about $2,000 less than those serving the fewest students of color, according the study.
The authors called on Congress to create incentives for states to adopt equitable funding systems, to ensure adequate funding for students with disabilities and to increase federal funding to supplement local dollars for school districts that are underfunded.
"Federal, state, and local government should develop incentives to promote communities that are not racially segregated and do not have concentrated poverty," the report said.
Whether channeling more money to schools in underserved communities will help improve the quality of education is a subject of academic debate.
"Money matters. If you don't have it, you cannot spend it," said Bruce Baker, a professor of education at Rutgers University. Baker said that states should do a better job in raising education funding and in equalizing spending among school districts. He also called for a greater federal role in making sure that less affluent states that need additional education funding get it.
"Having federal money can help states that cannot help themselves and federal pressure can encourage states to do the right thing, to raise enough resources and put them where they are needed."
But Eric Hanushek, a fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, disagrees.
"Money is not the secret recipe," Hanushek said. "How much is spent on schools is not as important as how the money is spent." For instance, he said, simply increasing the salaries of all teachers in a high-need school district won't have as much of an impact as identifying high-performing teachers and increasing their salaries.