Report: Racial disparities lead to less funding for school districts like Uniondale

Uniondale band students performing. At back were banners celebrating Juneteenth — or June 19, 1865 — the day following the Civil War when all slaves were at last freed in the United States. // Photo from the Uniondale School District website

By Madeline Armstrong

Editor’s note: This is part three in a long-term series on Uniondale by Hofstra University graduate journalism students enrolled in Community Journalism this past fall.

Uniondale Public Schools, a district of color in central Nassau County, receives about $10,000 less per student than other Long Island districts, particularly majority-white districts, according to a recent report published by ERASE Racism, an organization that leads public policy advocacy campaigns to promote racial equity in housing, public school education and community development.

“There are major gaps in resources. Students attending different school districts do not have uniform access to the resources they need to succeed,” the report reads.

These resource gaps correlate with race. The report breaks districts into four categories: intensely segregated (90-100% non-white), majority Black and Hispanic (50%-89%), racially diverse (40-60% white), and predominantly white (at least 70%).

Eleven districts fall among the intensely segregated districts, which are also classified as “high need,” the report shows. Uniondale is one such district, with 98% of the student population being of color.

“Compared to predominantly White districts, intensely segregated districts have less funding, less financial stability, higher teacher turnover rate, less [Advanced Placement] course availability and more students for every guidance counselor, social worker and teacher on average,” the report reads.

Uniondale School District officials declined comment for this story.

Despite the funding challenges that Uniondale faces, many of its students are achieving at the highest levels, according to officials on the Uniondale Schools website. Three Uniondale High School seniors were recently awarded full scholarships to top colleges through the 2022 QuestBridge National College Match. In all, five Uniondale High School seniors were selected as QuestBridge finalists.

From left were QuestBridge honorees, Christopher Reyes, Kimberly Reyes Alvarado, Yesica Arriola Hercules, Anais Arriola and Kaitlin Vigil Chicas. // From the Uniondale School District website

Among the honorees:

• Anais Arriola received a full four-year scholarship to Boston College.

• Kimberly Reyes Alvarado earned a full four-year scholarship to Stanford University.

• Yesica Arriola Hercules received a full four-year scholarship to Princeton University.

Kaitlin Vigil Chicas and Christopher Reyes were selected as finalists. Of the more than 17,900 applicants nationally, 5,613 were finalists, and from that pool, 1,755 seniors were awarded full scholarships.

Still, activists say, districts like Uniondale could do more with greater funding.

Inequity in funding

According to the report, predominantly white districts spend an average of $35,430 per student, while intensely segregated districts allocate $26,002 per student. Uniondale falls slightly below this average, at $25,251 per student.

“It seems as though Uniondale is well funded,” said Olivia Ildefonso, a research consultant for ERASE Racism. “Yet, this masks the fiscal strain the district is under due to being in a high-cost region with a large share of economically disadvantaged students. Adjusting for the cost of living and student need brings the per pupil expenditure down to $10,748.”

These adjustments are based on a report by the Fiscal Policy Institute titled, “School Finance on Long Island: An Analysis of State and Local Funding Patterns,” written by Trudi Renwick. 

“Since the cost of living is much higher in Long Island than many regions of the rest of the state, this analysis adjusts expenditure data to reflect that higher cost,” the FPI report reads. “Adjustments need to be made to reflect the differences in student needs. On average, it does not cost the same amount to educate a student from a high-income family as a student from a low-income family.”

“It seems as though Uniondale is well funded. Yet, this masks the fiscal strain the district is under.”

Olivia Ildefonso, ERASE Racism research consultant

According to Jeannine Maynard, co-facilitator of the Greater Uniondale Area Action Coalition, 70% of Nassau County’s public assistance population resides in nine communities. Uniondale is among them, with 72% of the Uniondale School District being economically disadvantaged.

“We have a disproportionate share of people who are in the public assistance system,” Maynard said.

Laura Harding, president of ERASE Racism, stressed that districts need equitable funding, rather than equal funding.

“The greatest thing that needs to be done is ensuring that districts are being funded according to need,” Harding said. “Equity says you give everyone what they need to meet a common bar. It doesn’t say give everyone the same thing because if you have a high-need district, I don’t need the same amount of money, I need the amount of money that will allow my school and district to provide me with the education, the instruction and the services to be able to be successful.”

There are 1,226 students per guidance counselor in intensely segregated districts compared to 356 students per guidance counselor in predominantly white districts. “It is much harder for students in intensely segregated districts than those in predominantly White districts to receive support on their career planning, college applications and preparation their academic successes,” the report reads.

The report also evaluated the fiscal and environmental stress scores of each district. A fiscal stress score acts as an index of indicators, capturing the financial struggles of a district. An environmental stress score acts as an index of indicators, capturing the variety of challenges that a district faces.

“Intensely segregated districts have the highest average fiscal stress score of 19.70… more than twice the average score of predominantly White districts,” the report reads. “Intensely segregated districts have an average environmental stress score that is almost seven times the score of predominantly White districts.”

Strengthening all districts

Aisha Wilson-Carter co-founded the Long Island Strong Schools Association, a nonprofit organization that provides resources, organizational help and information on policies to strengthen Long Island schools.

Wilson-Carter said the funding disparities exist because of the archaic and discriminatory districting that was put in place decades ago when segregation was still legal.

“The main problem stems from the fact that we have 125 school districts on Long Island,” Wilson-Carter said. “Because [funding] is based on property taxes, we have an unequal distribution of funding for each student.”

Another issue is that Long Island is geographically racially segregated. “Affordable multi-family housing is often put in places that are low-resourced and disproportionately non-White, thus worsening residential segregation and then school segregation,” the report reads.

“Here in 2022, the idea that we’re still working in a system that essentially was created because of legal segregation, discrimination, discriminatory real estate practices, redlining,” Wilson-Carter said. “We know better now, we know why it exists, so we could do something about that.”

Wilson-Carter said the ideal solution would be to rid the towns of some of the district barriers and create a system of town-wide funding, giving districts a larger funding pool to pull from, helping to ensure equity.

“If we had something like town-wide funding, town-wide programming, a district like Uniondale would be able to spend more money per student, which would make it more equitable,” Wilson- Carter said.

“Here in 2022, the idea that we’re still working in a system that essentially was created because of legal segregation, discrimination, discriminatory real estate practices, redlining. We know better now, we know why it exists, so we could do something about that.”

Aisha Wilson-Carter, co-founder, Long Island Strong Schools Association

To address these issues, ERASE Racism is promoting a policy that was published on a list of priority policies by the U.S. Department of Education: Proposed Priority 2, titled “Promoting Equity in Student Access to Educational Resources, Opportunities and Welcoming Environments.”

According to the policy, “Inadequate access to and the inequitable distribution of resources negatively affect underserved students’ educational experience in a number of ways, which may include fewer opportunities for educational enrichment, high-quality learning, well-rounded coursework and high-quality college and career pathways.”

The report examined the benefits of racially diverse schools. Wilson-Carter said there is a common misconception that integrating students of color into predominantly white schools or vice versa would result in disparities of education and resources. The opposite is true, however.

“When you ask both white and non-white, do they want to live in diverse communities, overwhelmingly the answer is yes,” Wilson-Carter said.

“Racially diverse districts have the lowest fiscal stress, the lowest ratio of students to guidance counselors and the lowest teacher turnover,” the report reads.

“When we look at our well-integrated districts, they are actually doing well and sometimes outperforming intensely segregated groups on both ends,” Harding said.

“When everyone is funded equitably, then we are able to create a bustling, robust economy,” Harding said. “We’re not investing in Long Island.”