To help poor communities, we should focus on passing legislation to fund public education

“Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.”

– Malcolm X

There are a lot of demands forming around the country right now in the wake of recent protests. These demands are being put forward by different organizations in different regions. I’ve seen everything from Detroit wanting to abolish foreclosures and evictions to Slo County wanting to create a civilian advisory council.

One of the most popular right now is the call to #defundthepolice, which got me thinking about reinvestment.

If wealthy cities and counties are going to defund their police, then we should write legislation to transfer the wealth to fund public schools in poor communities

A lot of people have been talking about defunding the police and reinvesting the money locally into social programs. Social programs are great at treating the symptoms of inequality and not getting to the root cause, which I think serves a purpose in the interim, but isn’t a long term solution.

People shouldn’t have to move to opportunity

If you really want to start creating opportunities for people, you’ve got to do it when they’re young. In fact, it’s the early years of a child’s development that are often the most influential. A recent study by economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence Katz reviewed years of data around 4,600 families who were part of a 1990s policy experiment called Moving to Opportunity.

Moving to Opportunity used a lottery to provide housing vouchers to families living in public housing so that they could afford to move into better neighborhoods. The government wanted to study how living in better neighborhoods might impact employment and earnings for both the parents and the children involved. 

When researchers reviewed the data for these families early on, in the first few years after the experiment, the results were disappointing. However, 20 years later and with a lot more data points, Chetty, Henderson and Katz conducted a new study that was anything but disappointing.

But like all good things, it takes time.

Moving to Opportunity worked. The positive benefits were the most profound for the young children of the families who moved to better neighborhoods. The younger the child was when the move occurred, the more they benefited from their new environment. Teens benefited less than toddlers.

Those children who were less than 13 years old when their families made the move ended up making 31% more than the children who remained in the high poverty, public housing areas. But when converted to dollars that 31% equals about $3,500 more annually. This is definitely an improvement, but no silver bullet.

We’ve got to focus on creating opportunity starting with providing quality education in every neighborhood

If people really want to shake up the system and re-examine our societal structures, then I think we should focus on reducing inequality.

If we want to reduce wealth inequality, then we need to create opportunity.

A great place to start is ensuring that public education receives sufficient funding.

I’m going to illustrate my goal by looking at two communities that are near and dear to my heart: Flint, Michigan, and San Luis Obispo County, California. I spent the last three years in Flint, Michigan so I’ll start with there.

If you drive around Flint, you’ll notice that there are boarded-up houses, businesses, and schools in many parts of the city. It’s important to understand the history leading up to the present day. This was the result of a handful of factors, including but not limited to:

  • Redlining and racial covenants. When GM built housing for migrant workers in the 1910s and 1920s, it put racially restrictive covenants in the deeds. Then in the 1930s, the FHA took over. It insured tens of thousands of home loans for white families in Flint, MI, but only a couple dozen for blacks, which led to the segregation of neighborhoods. These types of policies mixed with New Deal Housing practices lead to segregated areas in the city of Flint.
  • White flight. Many white people left Flint in the 1950s and 1960s to move to the suburbs bringing their property tax revenue with them.
  • GM shutting down Flint operations. GM employed 80,000 people in Flint in 1978 and now they only employ around 7,500.
  • Population shrinkage. From 1960 to 2010, the population of the city nearly halved from 196,940 to 102,434.

This all led up to the current day. Here are some stats about Flint today to show you where things are in the community and help put things further into perspective:

  • 40.4% (vs 15% nationally) of the population is living in poverty
  • 53.7% (vs 12.6% nationally) of the population is African American
  • 33:1 (vs 16:1 nationally) is the student-teacher ratio for Flint public schools
  • 81% of Flint students qualified for free lunches
  • 46 per one thousand residents crime rate which is one of the highest in the country
  • When the Flint police force was cut in half, crime doubled

With those stats in mind, I want to share three last stats with you (before we take a break from stats for a minute) that are at the national level, the percentage of African Americans arrested based on the FBI arrest tables:

  • In 2018, 27.4% of all arrests were African American
  • In 2018, 34.9% of all arrests under 18 were African American
  • Poor people are more than twice as likely to be victims of violent crimes

I know that was a lot of data. So sit with it a minute and take it all in.

The Flint schools have been shutting down because there isn’t any property tax revenue to fund them. This has resulted in combining schools, which has led to a high student:teacher ratio. This led to poor quality education, which led to high dropout rates or pursuing no further education past high school. All of this together limits the opportunity for upward mobility. It’s disheartening. Which helps begin to explain the high crime rate among African American youth granted it’s only one piece of the puzzle.

The way property taxes and municipal funding are currently structured will continue to exacerbate the problems we see in Flint and other poor communities. Problems that were borne out of racism and capitalism like those resulting from redlining, white flight, and the offshoring/automation of American jobs. Since these problems aren’t going to solve themselves, we have to come up with a way to solve them. Martin Luther King Jr. said it well.

“Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.” 

– Martin Luther King Jr.

Now, I want to take a minute to turn my attention to my home county of San Luis Obispo, CA. Let’s take a look at some of the same stats that we examined for Flint.

  • 12.7% (vs 15% nationally) of the population is living in poverty
  • 2.1% (vs 12.6% nationally) of the population is African American
  • 23:1 (vs 16:1 nationally) is the student-teacher ratio for Slo county public schools
  • 38.6% of students qualified for free lunches

These stats show a huge disparity between Slo and Flint.

Slo county collected an estimated $119,457,297 in property tax revenue for the 2018/19 fiscal year. The 2019/20 budget allocated $50,208,089 (plus an additional $5,555,890 for law enforcement healthcare) to the county Sherrif. If you’re going to defund the Sherrif in a place like Slo with a low violent crime rate, then wouldn’t it be great to share the wealth and get that money out of your rich community into the hands of a poor one?

Right now, with a lot of communities, like Slo, talking about defunding their law enforcement agencies, I’d like to broaden our thought process for what the reinvestment of funds could look like.

Instead of reinvesting that money back into an already affluent community, what if we put that money into a federal or state pool that would be distributed to poor communities for the sole purpose of funding their public education?

These types of revenue sharing don’t usually happen, but now is a time for some drastic change. Any sort of legislated revenue pooling would be an improvement over the current structure of local property taxes funding education. It would go a long way in sustainably reducing inequality in public education.

If we could make a change like this one as a nation, we might begin to atone for the years of cultural and de facto segregation that black people have faced in America, particularly in communities like Flint.

It would take vision, oversight, and perseverance, but it would be a meaningful longterm goal to help increase opportunity, reduce inequality, and lower crime rates.

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