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Rodriguez v. Board of Education, 2017-ad infinitum

August 14, 2017

 

 

Since 2013, members of Northgate Community Advocacy for our Public Schools, or Northgate CAPS, have been determined to break off and create a school district that will cater to their community’s unique educational needs.

 

A little bit of background is in order here: Northgate CAPS proponents are demanding independence from the Mount Diablo Unified School District because they feel, with fifty-six schools and 32,000 students, it lacks the “transparency, decision-marking, and accountability”  necessary to serve the children in Northgate’s community effectively.

 

The proposed secession from Mount Diablo will result in a new district that will be five schools- and approximately 4,200 students-large within the Northgate community.

 

Also of note: the median household income of the Northgate community is $126,000. By contrast, the median household income within Mount Diablo is $76,000.

 

Although an overwhelming number of school districts spend less than the national average on education per child, movements like Northgate CAPS are puzzlingly common.

 

Moreover, because public education funding varies from state to state, battle cries from your garden variety modern-day segregationist can easily be heard if you decide to brush up on the issue. For example, It’s a common misconception that property taxes in California pay for our public schools! Or, State funding will take care of the kids—don’t feed into the panic!

 

It is true that state funding, which comes from taxes, and does not grow from California soil (also known as the California State Funding Tree), pays for our schools. In part. It is also true that more than a quarter of California’s public school education is funded by property taxes.

 

That certainly doesn’t sound inconsequential to me. But I’m no governor. Or CAPS member. Or whatever other role might make me qualified to decide whether the role property taxes play in public K-12 education may or may not be a significant one.

 

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of property taxes assisting with school funds, it’s simple: high property tax equals high quality education. And vice versa. So if you live in a low-income area with low property values, you likely will also live in an area with schools that do not provide their students with an adequate education.

 

This means that public school students across the country are being afforded/denied vastly (and unjustifiably) different experiences of education. So it’s a good thing one’s K-12 education doesn’t have a meaningful impact on the remainder of one’s life. Like the ability to attend college, or land an internship or career. Or, you know cultivate things like healthy self-esteem or the skills for developing meaningful relationships with others.

 

All things that I am sure CAPS campaigners are not championing in their crusade to secede from Mount Diablo.

 

If the Governor’s new budget, which not only includes increased K-12 spending but also, supplemental grants for low-income students, has been implemented, California public schools are on the up-and-up, right?

 

In a recent budget update, Mount Diablo’s superintendent claimed that she was optimistic about the upcoming years, stating that the district is anticipating the expansion of some of its most valued programs. The problem is being solved as we speak. I mean, it’s dwindling before our very eyes, really.

 

Except, you know, despite the state’s increased spending on public education, California ranks in the bottom half of the nation, has the highest student to teacher ratio in the country, and comes in at forty-seven in terms of reading comprehension scores. Yes, out of fifty. According to a study published in late July. Of 2017.

 

So really, can you blame the Northgate community, or communities like it, for wanting to go their own way? The CAPS crusaders are not unique in their furious desire to build a wall around themselves. One that will result in, relative to the existing one, a startlingly homogeneous school district.

 

Currently, the Mount Diablo Unified School District is thirty-six percent Latinx and forty-one percent white. Should the proposed split occur, those numbers will shift—each to an even thirty-nine percent. Not too severe, one might say. The student body of the Northgate district, however, would be sixty-five percent white and a tremendous eight percent Latinx.

 

Moreover, Mount Diablo’s percentage of English-learning students would increase from forty percent to forty-three percent versus—drumroll—twenty-three percent of the new district’s student population.

 

CAPS members are quick to dismiss characterizations of their secession efforts as socioeconomically and, therefore, racially, segregationist. That their efforts, if successful, will result in a whiter, wealthier, and almost exclusively English-speaking school district is purely coincidental. As CAPS leader Jim Mills puts it, opponents of the secession only use the term “segregation” because they have no other arguments against it.

 

He continued: “The only ‘disenfranchisement’ around here has been the failure of voters to force accountability on a district that for years has under-served students—not just in Northgate but across the district.”

 

Feel free to keep this quote in your mind as I tell you a story you may or may not have heard before.

 

Demetrio Rodriguez had two sons who attended elementary school in Edgewood—a majority-Latinx and low-income district in San Antonio, Texas. The school lacked books and certified teachers, and the third floor was condemned. What’s more, it was situated across town from what was, at the time, a largely white district that housed some of the state’s most well-funded schools.

 

Rodriguez, along with other parents, filed a suit known as San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez. The suit made it all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, and, in 1973, the Court ruled in the district’s favor.

 

The parents claimed that basing school funding on property taxes inherently put lower-income districts at a disadvantage. Pretty straight-forward stuff. So how did they lose? It seems downright nonsensical.

 

Especially when you apply the reasoning of the Court in Brown v. Board of Education, wherein the Court used the equal protection clause to justify unanimously declaring racial segregation in schools unconstitutional. In delivering the opinion in Brown, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote:

 

"It is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms."

 

Evidently, a special emphasis needs to be placed on the words “where the state has undertaken to provide it.” So I guess the Rodriguez ruling wasn’t nonsensical after all. I mean, if we are following Brown. I also guess when it comes to landmark rulings on things like racial segregation in our schools, it’s important to read the fine print and not get so caught up in the excitement of stuff like the prohibition of racially segregating child students.

 

Anyway, in Rodriguez, the Court held that there is no right to equal education funding in the United States. In other words, school districts do not have a right to adequate funding, students do not have a right to an adequate education, and such things are not the federal government’s problem.

 

So if a state or district won’t or can’t provide its schools with adequate funding, what do you get?

 

Perhaps a superintendent just outside of St. Louis who oversees a district wherein many of the students come from poverty. Tiffany Anderson manages to implement cost-effective measures to assist her students, their parents, and the community at large.

 

For example, she has created partnerships outside the school system to help sponsor a homeless shelter, health clinic, and food pantry within the district. Imagine that—a community-oriented approach existing even in the absence of opulence. Or, you know. In the absence of adequate funding.

 

Or maybe the result is a school in Richmond, California, whose district who has been sued by the ACLU due to: a lack of electricity, heating, and sufficient chairs and desks; leaky ceilings; the presence of rat and feral cat feces in classrooms; the growth of mushrooms from the floors; and a truancy rate that accounts for approximately two-thirds of the student body.

 

Fortunately, Mount Diablo’s non-Northgate schools do not have these sorts of horrific problems.

 

However, it is obvious to anyone who chooses to acknowledge these inequities that the funding-related concerns held by opponents of the secession are not merely attempts to stir up paranoia in the absence of legitimate arguments—and to make such a conflation would not only be short-sighted but also, would border on delusional.

 

Still, some, like Northgate CAPS founding member Alisa MacCormac, argue that the split will not put Mount Diablo at a disadvantage because, as she says, lower-income districts receive more state funding. So in a way, separating children based on their parents’ economic backgrounds is a win-win for everyone. Thanks, Alisa!

 

Even if a new budget were to somehow magically democratize public K-12 funding, making it so children in California’s poorest districts are taken care of in the event of a school district split, do we really want that split if it ultimately results in sharply segregating children along racial and economic lines?

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