LTE: Funding schools with property taxes causes segregation

Illustration by Erin Vest

To the Editor:

Depending on where and how you grew up, a statistic can either warrant a ‘thank you captain obvious’ moment, or leave you in pure disbelief.

Growing up in Loudoun county, where the median income of $115,574 leads the nation, I was in pure disbelief when I was told school segregation is at its highest level since the 1970s.

Then I moved to Richmond.

While driving myself back to my apartment after class, I took a quick detour to visit my friends at their house. I parked in front, with my friends’ living space to my right, and an elementary school to my left. I looked out the driver side window, and experienced my first dose of a reality some kids in this country are forced to live every day.

There were at the very least 80 children waiting to board the bus home in front of George W. Carver Elementary School in Richmond. Every student was Black. There were no Asians, Hispanics, Middle Eastern or White student. None. I was looking school segregation right in its devilish eyes for the first time.

According to a University of Richmond study, the division among color lines in Richmond public schools is “rapidly intensifying.” White students make up 48 percent of school enrollment in Richmond. 64 percent of White students’ classmates are of the same race. Black students, however, who account for 35 percent of enrollment, have 57 percent same-race classmates. Latino students have experienced a 40 percent an increase in same race classmates.

I thought we outlawed this practice in the 1960s. How in the world did this happen?

It turns out to be pretty simple. Schools are designated to their local community and communities themselves are segregated. While not impossible, this segregation is very difficult to break from because schools are funded through property taxes, and property values in Black communities are much lower on average than property values in White communities.

Because of the stark contrast in school quality, poorer communities have found themselves stuck with lower graduation rates, higher unemployment and crime rates and lower incomes. And the root causes that made these communities segregated are detestable.

Back in the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation to help Americans finance their homes. In order to determine who received loans, the Federal Housing Administration color-coded neighborhoods with good and bad ratings using the colors green, blue, yellow and red. Green was the best color and red was the worst.

Unfortunately, simply being Black was enough to rate a property with the color red, preventing the owner of that property from receiving a loan. This discriminatory practice was called “redlining.”

The University of Richmond has information readily available for free online showing which neighborhoods in Richmond were redlined in the 1930s. You can also click on each neighborhood to find out why it was labeled a certain color. If you click on the red neighborhoods, one of the main reasons why a neighborhood was marked red was because of an “infiltration of negroes.”

Because of the Federal Housing Administration’s call for ‘’suitable restrictive covenants’’ to avoid ‘’inharmonious racial or nationality groups’’ in housing, it was nearly impossible for many Black Americans to leave their poor communities and move into a better one. In simpler terms, Black people couldn’t just pack up and move, because suburbs practiced racial discrimination and the government encouraged it.

It’s also important to note the government wasn’t the only group that purposely made it harder for Black people to receive mortgages, private lending institutions also discriminated against minorities. Even until the 1990s, private institutions practiced discriminatory lending, with Whites getting their loan requests accepted 1.6 times more often than minorities even when all factors including credit score are the same.

Unfortunately, even when the government outlawed these practices, the damage had already been done. The loans allowed families to buy properties and generate wealth from them, while also having disposable income for other goods and services. This prosperity attracted businesses, which then raised the demand for housing, causing property values to rise.

This domino effect not only left the schools segregated, but their funding too. Because property values rose much more rapidly in White communities than in minority communities, Black schools had much more trouble obtaining qualified teachers, school supplies and facilities.

Black schools are also less likely to provide a college prep curriculum such as AP classes for their students. About 9,300 public school students across Chesterfield, Hanover, Henrico and Richmond were enrolled in an AP class during a 2013 federal survey of public schools. Of those 9,300, only 455 of those students were from Richmond, a heavily segregated school system.

The consequences of poor education has been felt. A majority of the homeless population in Richmond is Black, and it’s the same way no matter what city you’re in. Black people make up 13 percent of the population in the U.S., yet account for 40 percent of all homeless people in the United States.

So what changes can we make? One mainstream answer is redistribution. Collect all property taxes in a state as a whole, and redistribute. That’s what Wyoming did, and every school district in the state receives more funding than the national average.

But not every state has done that, and many states will continue not to. So I propose this: Discontinue the practice of funding school through property taxes and let the federal government provide funding. This will allow school districts across the country to be adequately funded like Wyoming.

But won’t that mean the federal government gets to control how the money gets spent too? Possibly, but it doesn’t have to be that way, that’s a political decision. States can pass laws to give the local districts more autonomy over what to spend the money on. California for example passed a law in 2013 called the Local Funding Control Formula which granted local school districts more control over how to spend money in their districts. Virginia can do this too.

I’ve always supported the notion that we don’t defeat racism by attacking it directly. We defeat it at its roots. At the very root, Blacks are less likely to prosper because they start out in poorer communities with higher crime and bad schools. These factors make it less likely for kids in these communities to be accepted into college, preventing them from generating a higher income. If we can end the practice of property taxes funding schools, and instead find a method that provides adequate funding to every district, the playing field would be a little more equal.

Over time, this funding will raise graduation rates, which in turn raises college attendance rates and eventually higher incomes. If we create a system that allows you the opportunities to be successful no matter where you’re born, we might see schools slowly but surely desegregate.

-Taylor Nguyen

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