Zoom out, and you can see macro-level concentrations of poverty and wealth, like the dark blue swaths of impoverished districts along the Mississippi River in the Deep South and in rural parts of the West. Zoom in, and you see how school district boundaries often serve as stark lines of division between the poor and the affluent.
EdBuild founder Rebecca Sibilia says that the map should serve as a wake-up call that gerrymandering is as much a problem for kids in public schools as it is for voters. The difference is that boundaries are drawn to contain poor families rather than to favor a certain political party, she said.
Take Camden, N.J., pictured below. More than 45 percent of Camden’s 16,000 students live in poverty. Within a five-mile radius of the city center, there are 32 other small school districts that each serve a wealthier population.
Or look at Birmingham, Ala., a district in which more than 40 percent of children live in poverty. The impoverished district, in dark blue in the map below, includes islands marooned within more affluent suburbs.
EdBuild published the map to highlight inequitable school funding across the country. Fixing that problem is the main aim for the new nonprofit, says Sibilia, an alumna of StudentsFirst, the lobbying organization founded by Michelle Rhee. Sibilia is also a veteran of the Rhee era of reform in the District; she was chief financial officer of the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education during Rhee’s tenure as chancellor of D.C. Public Schools.
Below is an interview with Sibilia, edited for length and clarity.
Why did you start EdBuild? What are you trying to do?
We’re really focused on what we believe to be the core structural challenges to moving forward with a modern, 21st Century delivery of education. We’re in a position where we have blended learning and iPads in the classroom, but we’re still funding our schools using formulas from 1986. It’s a crazy mismatch.
There are three core issues:
First, the amount of funding that is being provided on a student-by-student basis to the same schools, to students with the same needs, is wildly arbitrary. Take Ohio: The state funding formula spits out $5,000 more per pupil for kids in Toledo than those in Canton, despite very similar demographics.
The second problem really relates to the core focus of what we tried to get at with the map, which is our over-reliance on property taxes to fund schools. It’s creating arbitrary lines to keep wealth in or out of specific areas and in some cases creating a very clear incentive to segregate along socioeconomic lines. When you start to see the gerrymandering effect in an area like Camden — that’s very clear segregation. There’s nothing else that you can say about that. We believe that part of those impermeable borders are being bolstered by the fact that we’re relying on property taxes as a major contributor to funding our schools.
The third area is that a lot of our state funding systems are completely arcane. The way that schools are constructing their curriculum, their pedagogy, around the financial incentives in those systems — it’s just time for radical change. We need to make sure that we have a system that is equitable and based on the needs of students regardless of what school they’re enrolled in, that means agnostic of governance system [i.e., regardless of whether they’re in a traditional or charter school].
You just published this map that shows the poverty rates in every school district in America. What do you want people to take away from the map?
From our perspective, numbers and baseline statistics tell such a story that we feel has been missing form the debate. We think that a lot of these heady issues around how we’re funding schools and the massive inequities that exist in our system can be told pretty easily by visualizing numbers.
The map is the first step in what we envision to be a really rich website for visualizations and data that we hope will tell a story with very little commentary. We think the data speaks for itself.
Besides publishing data like this, what else are you doing? Are you working as advocates, or consultants?
We’re kind of a hybrid. We’re not consultants. We’re working directly with advocates and state governments to help them think about these issues and solve some of the major problems that are facing them.
Georgia is currently trying to revise their funding formula. We’re helping them to figure out what the fiscal impact of those switches can be, what the research says … we’re like a technical assistance provider.
What are the policy solutions, in your view, to the intractable problems of segregation and inequitable funding?
We have to take on the issue of reliance on property taxes to run schools. You can create regional tax bases like what they have in Minneapolis. State-funded systems, we certainly have our eye on that. Vermont is funded by the state and we think it’s the simplest way to get to a more equitable system — to have the state pay it all.
The first step is calling attention to the problem on a state-by-state basis, region-by-region basis, then figuring out the unique political climate in that state. It’s fundamentally enhancing the state’s role in ensuring equity and ensuring all communities are paying.
Also, there are a huge number of kids that are enrolled in charter schools. That is no longer theoretical, that is a real thing that is happening in our country right now. The fact that we’re still having arguments over whether or not we’re supportive of schools of choice is creating a situation where those schools of choice are getting less [per-pupil funding in many places]. Why is Sally worth less to the state than Johnny when they have the exact same needs and live in the exact same neighborhood and go to two different schools?
So we believe that students should get the resources they need no matter what school they go to. But do we think that choice, wide-scale choice, is the solution the problem? Absolutely not. We’re actually more focused on traditional schools.
Many people on your staff and board have roots in charter schools and the reform movement. Funding equity has not been a big talking point for reformers, and at one point it might have even been considered an “excuse” that educators give to explain low achievement among poor children. Do you think that there’s been a change in this regard – a recognition by the reform community that funding matters?
I actually think that there is a split in terms of who you classify as a reformer and all of them have a different perspective on this. I will give you an example in terms of my professional evolution here. Take compensation for teachers and competitive compensation, not necessarily based on performance, but allowing a school system to structure salaries based on recruitment and retention needs. A school district should be able to offer $10,000 more to a biology teacher if they’re in a rural area with no biology teachers.
I would hear all of my peers talking about how we need to pave the way on the legislative side to create differentiated compensation systems and I would be thinking, ‘but you don’t have the funding mechanism to do that.’
So I don’t think there’s necessarily going to be a shift in the reform movement. I think EdBuild was constituted to be that voice, to start marrying what the reformers say on the policy side with the practicalities on the funding side.
I actually think that EdBuild is really well-positioned at the right time right now. I have heard from so many of our friends on the conservative side who do believe that choice is the answer, who are now realizing that the ability to bring choice to scale is limited by the inability of choice schools to access local funds. They’ve started to really focus on inequities in funding between schools of difference governance.
Progressives have been out there forever, talking about this from the equity perspective.
We are advocating for a solution that will meet both objectives. We’re seeing a coming together of two very different kinds of theories of education reform and they’re coming together around funding issues in a unique way.
You’re not being paid by states; you’re supported by philanthropists. Who are your funders?
Our funders are listed on our Web site:
Peter and Carmen Lucia Buck Foundation
Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation
Walton Family Foundation
Carnegie Corporation of New York
Bellwether Education Partners
Forward Progress in Politics
Center for American Progress