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Academic Inequality in the Urban School Setting: Funding Disparities that Lead to Educational Disadvantages

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michelle Bassetti
February 9, 2018

Education is key in the formation of a well-educated society where dreams are met, goals are achieved and the economic systems of our country flourish as students’ graduate college and enter the work force. However, for students in underserved urban school districts, marked inequalities in educational experiences place students in jeopardy of not reaching their full potential when compared to their suburban counterparts. Students in high poverty urban districts often receive an unfair disadvantage in the allocation of resources, experience high turnover in teachers and staff, and lack strong parental support systems at home. For urban school districts, academic and economic inequalities may ultimately hinder the student’s likelihood of achieving success.

The inequality plaguing urban school districts can be attributed to district funding gaps. The disparity between students in wealthy districts versus poorer districts continues to exist because of the amount of money available within the districts. Public schools are run and maintained by the cities and towns and are funded by local property taxes. For students living in higher-income towns, the property taxes are much higher than in poorer districts and results in more money being funneled into the school district.

In high poverty areas, school districts struggle to maintain adequate standards of student achievement without the benefit of an influx of funding sources. Low-income students in urban school districts are at greater risk of experiencing less experienced teachers, inferior infrastructure, and a curriculum that is wholly incomparable to wealthier districts. For students in urban districts, textbooks to bring home are a luxury, school technology is subpar at best and some schools lack even the most basic resources for students to safely and comfortably make it through a school day. Heating and cooling systems are often outdated and in ill-repair, causing districts to cancel classes due to extremes in the weather. When students can’t even attend an entire school day without worrying about the basic human rights of staying warm or keeping cool, how are they expected to learn at a level even remotely close to students in suburban districts?

In looking at the data of two New Jersey high schools in neighboring towns, the academic inequalities between a suburban high school and an urban high school are glaringly clear. According to data obtained from the Public School Review, Collingswood High School (a suburban district) has a 100 percent graduation rate which is higher than the New Jersey state average of 94%. Collingswood’s minority enrollment (the majority of which are Black and Hispanic) compromises 47 percent of the student body which is less than the state average of 52 percent. Collingswood home owners pay an average of $7,449 annually in property taxes with a large portion of those taxes going directly to the school district. Just over three miles away from Collingwood is the city of Camden, NJ; the poorest city in New Jersey and among one of the poorest cities in the nation. Camden High School has a graduation rate of just 48 percent, almost half of the New Jersey state average. Camden High School’s minority enrollment (the majority of which are black) comprises 100 percent of the student body, which is double the state average. Property taxes in Camden are a mere $1,533 annually – the lowest of all 565 New Jersey municipalities.

The zip code of a student—a simple five-digit numerical code—greatly impacts the likelihood of future success for the students attending schools in high poverty areas. In the 2010 Pew Research Center report, Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next, research found that approximately 19 percent of students graduating from urban school districts go on to attend college as compared to 70 percent of students graduating from suburban school districts. This is largely because in affluent suburban districts, schools can foster a learning environment which places a high level of importance on the enhancement of their student’s achievements. With expanded resources, advanced technology, fundraisers and booster clubs, grants from the state, and a strong community structure, the student body can thrive. Students in these districts are given every opportunity for academic success; personal laptops, up-to-date textbooks, highly skilled and educated teachers and strong community support.

Within today’s society, every student deserves the same opportunities in education whether they live in the poorest district in the state or the most affluent district. No child should have to go to school with a blanket packed in their backpack for warmth or worry about completing homework due to a shortage of text books or lack of technological resources. Our children are tomorrows leaders and without a strong foundation of education and support to guide these students into the future, there can be very little hope for true success for urban students.


Author: Michelle A. Bassetti is a graduate of John Jay College of Criminal Justice where she earned her MPA in Public Policy and Administration with a specialization in criminal justice policy reform. Michelle’s other areas of research work include economic inequalities in public education and social welfare policies. She can be reached via email at [email protected] or on Twitter @MBassetti_MPA

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

One Response to Academic Inequality in the Urban School Setting: Funding Disparities that Lead to Educational Disadvantages

  1. Elizabeth Doane Reply

    February 10, 2018 at 9:16 pm

    I am a teacher in a very large urban district and I have to fully commend you on the passion behind this article. Very few people outside of the field of education understand just how serious of a problem academic inequality is within poor districts.

    As a teacher, I have had to spend large sums of my own money in an attempt to provide my students with much needed items like pencils, notebooks, and the basic necessities of learning. I have students that come to school staving and are unable to concentrate as a result. I have students that are unable to complete homework assignments due to not having access to internet at home. It’s a travesty, really.

    I can’t tell you how many students have come to me and have said they have zero life ambition because they already know (from a young age) that they will be unable to attend college and make something with their lives. I fully believe that so much more needs to be done within the education field to be able to allow these students to reach their full potential. For the most part, they are just left to flounder in their academic studies and as teachers, we just have to hope for the best.

    Thank you so much for bringing this issue to light and for your dedication in trying to make a difference in this field. The world can definitely use more caring and passionate individuals such as yourself to try to make a difference for our children. Very impressive article, Michelle.

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