U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Report on Educational Equity – Commentary

Carissa Mulder

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recently released a report entitled, “Public Education Funding Inequity in an Era of Increasing Concentration of Poverty and Resegregation.” The report argues that children from low-income families tend to live in school districts that have less money than children from wealthier families. Despite the report’s emotional language, these funding gaps are not as stark as one might suppose. “While school districts spend an average of $11,066 on each student each year,” “the highest-poverty districts receive an average of $1,200 less per-pupil than the lowest-poverty districts, and districts serving the largest numbers of students of color receive about $2,000 less per-pupil than districts who serve the fewest students of color.” The report moves the goalposts, though, in that the Commission’s progressive majority is not interested in mere funding parity, but in providing more funding for low-income and black and Hispanic students than for middle-class and white and Asian students. The majority says in its findings: “Equalizing spending is often not enough to close the achievement gap. Equitable levels of funding allow an equal opportunity for all students to succeed.” This echoes a guidance on “resource comparability” issued by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights during the Obama Administration.

The Commission majority also takes aim at housing policy, which it blames for exacerbating inequality and “segregation.” The difficulty, of course, is that de jure segregation no longer exists, and the distribution of individuals in housing patterns is determined by free choice and pocketbooks. The report applauds HUD’s “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” rule, issued under the Obama Administration, which adopts a disparate impact theory of the Fair Housing Act. Commissioner Kirsanow is a longtime critic of the rule because of its racial classifications and intrusion into local government.

Commissioners Peter Kirsanow and Gail Heriot dissented from the report. Commissioner Kirsanow writes:

The United States has dramatically increased education spending over the past 100 years, yet we have little to show for it. A study of long-term NAEP trends found that reading scores for nine-year-olds had increased from 208 to 221 from 1971 to 2012 and thirteen-year-old reading scores had increased from 255 to 263 from 1973 to 2012. Math scores for nine-year-olds had increased from 219 to 244, and math scores for thirteen-year-olds had increased from 266 to 285. These modest improvements are, however, temporary and fleeting, as the reading and math scores of seventeen-year-olds were essentially unchanged. In contrast, in the 1971-72 school year the United States spent an average of $5,692 (in 2015 dollars) per pupil, and in the 2011-12 school year it spent $11,817 (in 2015 dollars). So the math and reading scores remained static over 40 years while spending doubled. Should we, then, triple educational spending? Quadruple it? What is the last dollar that will finally move the needle by even one point? And even if we could move the needle by ten points, where does the money come from? Current expenditures for education total $634 billion, an amount nearly equal to the entire federal deficit. If money made much of a difference, we should be seeing far greater improvements in NAEP scores than we are.

Commissioner Heriot writes: “There is precious little reason to believe that, on average, fewer actual dollars are being spent nationally by school districts that serve large numbers of minority students. Indeed, the evidence goes in the opposite direction – on average, more dollars are spent on these school districts.” She then cites a report from the Department of Education, which states:

More money is spent in districts with the highest percentages of minority students compared to districts with the lowest percentages of minority students ($4,514 versus $3,920). Although minority students in poverty are often viewed as those least served by current systems of public education funding, these findings suggest that while inequalities may remain for students in poverty, they do not appear to be driven by minority status.

Both Commissioners Kirsanow and Heriot warn against the centralization of education promoted by the report. Commissioner Heriot warns that education is prone to fads because of the heavy involvement of government and charitable organizations. The more centralized the education system, the more fads – some harmless, some seriously misguided – can spread. “The problem with centralized control of education is that when it goes wrong, it goes very wrong. And there is no escape for parents and students.”  Commissioner Kirsanow writes:

Removing local control is fundamentally at odds with the American ideal of representative government. Citizens should be in charge of making political decisions, including school funding. It is their money, after all. And one of the important aspects of representative government is that it allows the majority to express its will on political issues. The panjandrums of Washington, D.C. have a different vision, one that coerces polities and individuals alike.

The report and dissenting statements represent two starkly different visions of education in the United States. The report and majority statements see a world in which only a few hundred billion dollars in additional spending, reorganization of the housing choices of millions of Americans, and transfer of more power to the wise women in Washington stand in the way of finally having equal outcomes across race and class lines. The dissenting statements see a world in which hundreds of billions of dollars have already been spent on education to little effect, and further interference in the free choices of individuals and local control of education are likely to do more harm than good.

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Carissa Mulder is a graduate of Notre Dame Law School and special assistant to Commissioner Peter Kirsanow of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She resides in Virginia. This post does not represent the views of the Commission. 

Carissa Mulder

Special Assistant to Commissioner Peter Kirsanow

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights


Race & Sex

Federalist Society’s Civil Rights Practice Group

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