This article provides a rich longitudinal portrait of the financial and social resources available in the school districts of high- and low-income students in the United States from 1990 to 2014. Combining multiple publicly available data sources for most school districts in the United States, we document levels and gaps in school district financial resources—total per-pupil expenditures—and social resources—local rates of adult educational attainment, family structure, and adult unemployment—available to the average public school student at a variety of income levels over time. In addition to using eligibility for the National School Lunch Program as a blunt measure of student income, we estimate resource inequalities between income deciles to analyze resource gaps between affluent and poor children. We then examine the relationship between income segregation and resource gaps between the school districts of high- and low-income children. In previous work, the social context of schooling has been a theoretical but unmeasured mechanism through which income segregation may operate to create unequal opportunities for children. Our results show large and, in some cases, growing social resource gaps in the districts of high- and low-income students nationally and provide evidence that these gaps are exacerbated by income segregation. Conversely, per-pupil funding became more compensatory between high- and low-income students’ school districts over this period, especially in highly segregated states. However, there are early signs of reversal in this trend. The results provide evidence that school finance reforms have been somewhat effective in reducing the consequences of income segregation on funding inequities, while inequalities in the social context of schooling continue to grow.
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Other research did not find causal effects of school poverty on students’ outcomes (e.g., Lauen and Gaddis 2013).
Moreover, because of complex funding allocation, states with a greater share of Title I–eligible students actually receive less funding per student, on average, than smaller states with a smaller share of eligible students (Gordon 2016).
Some research has suggested that a more educated adult population in a school district may not benefit all children equally. School personnel may placate advantaged parents and provide more resources for white or higher-income children (Lewis and Diamond 2015; Lewis-McCoy 2014), and students may be placed in different academic tracks based on race and class (Oakes 1985).
Duncombe et al. (2015) described several methods for adjusting for geographic variation in costs. They noted that the ECWI does not take factors into account that may shape teachers’ job choices, such as student demographics and school conditions.
In some years, educational attainment is tabulated for adults with children enrolled in public schools. We do not use this measure because it is not available in all years, but the correlation between educational attainment for all adults and adults with children in public school is over .90 in the years that both tabulations are available, with similarly high correlations for unemployment rates between the two populations.
In more recent years, the census has also collected data on cohabitation, which may serve as a similar, alternative family arrangement to marriage in some cases. However, because information on cohabitation is not available in earlier years, we use married family households as a consistent measure of family structure across all years in our study, although we make no claims that marriage is normatively beneficial. Our measure may underestimate parental time and resources in communities where cohabitation is common.
Political processes, such as school district consolidation or fragmentation, are factors that affect income segregation between districts within states as well as levels of exposure to district resources. In our longitudinal descriptive framework, we acknowledge that changes in income segregation may be partly a function of changes in the underlying structure of school district boundaries.
Communications with officials at the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Education suggest that these data are missing primarily because of data suppression practices. These practices primarily affect very small geographic units.
To do this, we assume that family incomes are spread evenly across each bin (income range).
We also estimate national cut points for income deciles for children in public school using IPUMS. One advantage of the IPUMS data is that income is presented as an exact dollar amount instead of in bins, and the number of children in a household is known. Estimates from the IPUMS and EDGE data are highly correlated. We use the EDGE cut-point estimates because they are derived from the same source as our social resource data.
The first decile corresponds to students in the 10th percentile and below, the 5th decile corresponds to students in the 40th to 50th percentiles, and the 10th decile corresponds to students in the 90th to 100th percentiles of the national income distribution of families with children in public school.
Income segregation among all households is highly correlated with income segregation among public school households, although income segregation levels are lower among all households compared with those among households with children in public school.
We implement the bias adjustment using the Stata program rankseg.
These national figures are population-weighted averages of the school districts in our sample.
The post-2000 figures deviate from national statistics in part because they are derived from five-year ACS averages.
When segregated school systems are also highly fragmented, this may result in higher overall educational costs because each district must replicate basic institutional functions and staffing. Although income-segregated states spend more on education, on average, it is unclear whether those extra dollars contribute directly to student outcomes.
Table A3 in the online appendix presents state-level descriptive statistics for education exposure and income segregation.
Official accounts of revenues generated through governmental channels may overlook fundraising efforts by parents or local nonprofit organizations, although to our knowledge, the extent of financial inequalities created by these sources is unknown. Inequalities created through extra-governmental means would likely erode the progressivity we observe because wealthier districts likely have greater capacity to supplement tax-based revenues as a result of both differential wealth as well as vast differences in the social resources we document.
Current data initiatives, such as the Stanford Education Data Archive (SEDA), may permit future links between the mechanisms we document and student outcomes, although the SEDA data are available for only recent school years.
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An earlier version of this article was presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (Montreal, August 2017). Research for this article was supported by the Stanford University Center for Poverty and Inequality (New Scholars Grant to Bischoff and Owens) and from National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Fellowships to both authors. We thank the editors and four anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments.
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Bischoff, K., Owens, A. The Segregation of Opportunity: Social and Financial Resources in the Educational Contexts of Lower- and Higher-Income Children, 1990–2014. Demography 56, 1635–1664 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-019-00817-y