Civil rights lawyer and scholar, Dr. Michelle Alexander, who recently lectured at PCC in an attempt to shine light on the emergence of a new system of oppression of poor people of color in America over the past 30 years. This system of oppression begins with the failing of schools in poor communities of color and it often ends in state and federal penitentiaries. Dr. Alexander pointed out, as did Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in 1968 , the simultaneous existence of the two very different Americas. One America, as “is beautiful for situation” and “children grow up in the sunlight of opportunity” because they have basic physical needs met for healthy bodies and quality education to feed their minds and guide them to the path that leads to prosperity (King). In the other America, which often exists in poor urban neighborhoods of color, the presence of opportunity looks drastically different. In this America, poor children of color often face severe substandard living conditions only to be shuffled through devastatingly underfunded, unequal, and overcrowded public educational institutions.
These institutions chronically fail at providing students with the basic education necessary to even graduate high school (Waiting for Superman) . As a result, poor students of color enter the working world with substantially fewer skills, lowering opportunities to exceed more than minimum wage employment . Educational inequality and the severe underfunding of schools in poor communities of color, systematically disempower youth and lock them into a cycle of poverty. Most public schools receive funding from local property taxes. Public schools in impoverished areas are severely underfunded because of the lower property value in poorer neighborhoods. Lower property value makes for lower property tax, and lower property taxes translate into lower public school funding. Schools in poor areas suffer greatly compared to schools in middle class and affluent areas.
With higher property values in affluent areas, comes significantly more money for those schools. In 2011, one analysis of schools in Illinois, found that on average that the states’ 10 poorest schools spent 30% of what the 10 wealthiest schools spent annually on average per student (Black). In addition, public schools in affluent communities often receive private donations from businesses or members of the communities. This extra funding can boost wealthier public schools annual spending per student thousands of dollars above that of poorer public schools, creating a staggering gap in educational funding between poorer and wealthier schools. It is not that community members in poorer neighborhoods feel that schools are not important, but rather money in these communities is scarce. Many in these communities view getting a good education as a top priority because for many education is the only way out of poverty. Unequal school funding directly affects the quality of education poor children of color have access to. By placing them in dilapidated overcrowded schools without basic necessary materials to learn , we systematically disempower their minds (Chambliss).
According to the 2011 U.S Census, 38.8% of Black children and 34.1 % of Latino children under the age of 18 lived below poverty. Due to the gross underfunding of schools in poor communities, a disproportionate number of Black and Latino children are attending schools that academically cannot prepare them to succeed. All too many schools in poor urban communities are lacking basic essential learning supplies, such as textbooks, science labs and equipment, computers, proper classrooms for learning to take place in, and sometimes even adequate numbers of operating restroom facilities. For example, due to excessive overcrowding in a Brooklyn school, some classes were held in the gym, hallways, and even unoccupied restrooms (Chambliss). How can we expect children to be academically successful if the educational institutions they are relying on to do not have access to the proper tools in which to enable successful learning? These underfunded schools seem to excel only in preparing students for a life of low income jobs, poverty, and more often than not, incarceration.
A grim reality that turns ” the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair” for these underprivileged young people of in these communities (King). In the United States today, Black males make up only 6.7% of the population, however only 35% of that population graduate high school and a staggering 40.1% are in state and federal prisons ( Alexander) . Even those students who manage to graduate from these “failure factories” often are graduating with significantly fewer skills than their wealthier graduating counterparts (Waiting for Superman). High percentages of graduates that come from underfunded schools often emerge lacking proficiency in reading, writing, and math, thus extremely limiting their opportunities and access to higher education and higher paying jobs (Waiting for Superman). Every year these inadequate education institutions are disempowering thousands of youth in poor neighborhoods of color by failing to provide them with an education that is comparable to that offered to affluent youth, leaving them unable to compete in the skilled job market of today. Underfunded schools are producing under educated and uneducated students, who upon leaving the educational system are forced to compete for the few unskilled minimum wage jobs that may exist within their community.
The American education system does not provide all American youth with equal opportunity to quality education. With a large percentage of public school funding coming from local property taxes, public schools in poorer communities suffer greatly due to the low property values in their struggling communities. Low property values means little funding for the schools in poor communities of color. The underfunding of the schools in these communities force children into overcrowded learning institutions that do not have essential means and supplies in which to provide students with a basic education, and the empowerment that comes with obtaining it. As long as underfunded schools keep producing an uneducated population, socioeconomic status and property values will continue to remain low in poor communities, perpetuating the cycle of poverty that has existed within these communities for generations. With growing numbers of poor children of color failing or dropping out of school, “ not because they don’t have the native intelligence, but because the schools are so inadequate”, the true potential of these young people can never be realized (King).