Inequality, Education, and the Case for Community Schools

With the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, struggles with systemic racism, and current threats to democracy, community schools are more important than ever.

This chapter explains the case for community schools by focusing on three interrelated contexts of American education: what we know about our students; how our schools are organized to respond; and the inextricable link between schools and their communities. Poverty and race—and their convergence—are throughlines in this story.

Our Students: Poorer, More Diverse, and More Isolated Than Ever

One in six American children lives in poverty, according to the 2021 official poverty level (an annual income of $26,500 for a family of four). When educators think about poverty among students, the measure they often use is the eligibility for free and reduced-price lunch, which is available to children in households with incomes at or below 185% of the federal poverty level. During the 2000–2001 school year, 38% of public school students met this eligibility standard. By 2015–2016, that figure had risen to more than half (52%)—a level so troubling that it calls into question basic assumptions about our country’s social, public, and taxation policies.

Racial disparities in income are similarly stark. The average annual income of white families ($76,057 as of 2023) is substantially higher than that of Black ($45,438) and Hispanic ($56,113) families, with concomitant disparities in eligibility for free and reduced-price lunch.

Another important consideration is the racial and ethnic diversity of America’s public school students. According to data available from the National Center for Education Statistics (2020–2021 academic year), 45.8% of students are white; 28% are Hispanic; 15% are Black; 5.4% are Asian; 4.5% are two or more races; and less than 1% are American Indian, Alaska Native, or Pacific Islander (Riser-Kositsky, 2023).

An analysis of these demographics demonstrates a significant shift over the past two decades, culminating in an important milestone: In 2014, for the first time, the total number of students of color surpassed the number of non-Hispanic white students, a phenomenon driven largely by dramatic growth in the Hispanic population and a decline in the white population. While many observers, including the authors of this volume, recognize diversity as a strength, we are also cognizant of the educational implications of this development. As Kent McGuire, head of the Southern Regional Education Board at the time, observed, the significance of this milestone revolves around the fact that:

[We] are talking about kids we historically have served least well…Over the decades, we have not managed to reduce the variation in performance between kids of color and white kids, and we haven’t closed the gap between advantaged kids and disadvantaged kids, so now we have to figure out how to do something that we’ve never done before, for the majority. (Maxwell, 2014)

The convergence of race and poverty in schools is critical to understanding the lives of children in America. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2020), students of color were most likely to attend high-poverty schools, with 45% of Black students, 45% of Hispanic, and 41% of American Indian/Alaska Native students learning in these circumstances. Only 8% of white students and 15% of Asian students faced similar situations, and only 7% of Black students attended low-poverty schools (Hussar et al., 2020).

The consequences of attending a school with a large concentration of students from low-income households is significant. Research has shown that the single most important predictor of racial gaps in educational achievement is the extent to which students attend schools surrounded by other low-income students. Stanford Professor Sean Reardon explains:

School poverty turns out to be a good proxy for the quality of a school. They are in poorer communities, they have less local resources, they have fewer parents with college degrees, they have fewer two-parent families where there are parents who can spend time volunteering in the school, they have a harder time attracting the best teachers. (Boschma & Brownstein, 2021)

And of course these students disproportionately face an array of related challenges: hunger, inadequate early childhood experiences, health and mental health issues, bullying, homelessness, and more.

Reardon asserts that the recent national preoccupation with the so-called achievement gap, precipitated by the 2002 No Child Left Behind federal education policy, is misplaced. According to his research, the focus should be on the opportunity gap—that is, on the sum total of all the ways children do not have access to the things and experiences they need to learn, in and out of school, starting in early childhood. The opportunity gap has multiple dimensions, from a lack of internet connectivity to an inability to pay for preschool education, after-school experiences, tutoring, and test-preparation services. Inequality compounds the opportunity gap. “High-income families spend nearly $8,000 per year more on education and enrichment than low-income families—resulting in a spending gap of up to $100,000 by the end of high school,” according to U.S. News & World Report (Cline, 2018). Prejudice or bias also denies students of color equal and equitable access to learning opportunities, as well as the multiple disadvantages resulting from racism itself.

The trauma that children experience also cannot be ignored. More than two-thirds of children reported at least one traumatic event by age 16 with experiences including physical or sexual abuse, community or school violence, domestic violence, or sudden loss of a loved one, among others (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, n.d.). Such life events, often referred to as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) are not felt equally. Nationally, 61% of Black non-Hispanic children and 51% of Hispanic children have experienced at least one ACE, compared with 40% of white non-Hispanic children and only 23 percent of Asian non-Hispanic children (Sacks & Murphey, 2018).

Given these realities—more children in America living in poverty, the nation’s students becoming more diverse, and the convergence of poverty and race in large numbers of America’s schools—one might expect decisions about education resource allocations to address the documented gaps. Instead, we find a picture of widespread inequities woven deeply into the very structure of our public education system.

[4] High-poverty schools are defined as public schools where more than 75% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL). Mid-high poverty schools are those where 50.1%–75% of the students are eligible for FRPL. Mid-low poverty schools are those where 25.1%–50% of the students are eligible for FRPL. Low-poverty schools are those where 25% or less of the students are eligible for FRPL. See

Inequity in Action: A Snapshot of America’s Public Education System

Understanding the significance and potential of the community school strategy requires looking at the condition of America’s public schools. Inequities in America’s public education system run wide and deep, and include uneven financing, policies that place inexperienced and poorly trained teachers and principals in schools serving low-income children, and inadequate and unhealthy school facilities. Too many schools ignore the realities in children’s lives and the opportunity gaps they experience daily.

Inequity #1: The unequal way we finance public education. “Why would you want to do a thing like that?” asked a befuddled colleague from New Zealand during a visit to a New York City public school when he learned that American schools tend to allocate the most resources to more affluent students and the least resources to those from the lowest-income families. He explained that in his country the reverse is true: Their system allocates the most resources to the country’s neediest children, ensuring that all students have an opportunity to succeed.

No analysis of the American education system can ignore the deep inequities in our approach to school finance—a system rooted in local control and, intentionally or not, inequality. Given the place-based nature of poverty, local financing subverts the educational goal of increased opportunity for children from families with low incomes. The segregation of our communities by race and income contributes to the fact that the United States spends an annual average of $10,700 per pupil, and at least $20,000 per pupil in 8 of the 10 wealthiest districts.

American schools receive less than 10% of their funding from federal sources, while approximately 50% comes from states and the remaining 40% derives from local property taxes. A 2019 report by EdBuild identified a massive $23 billion annual funding gap between low-income and more affluent schools across the United States. The gap described in this report is so pervasive that fully 47 states have been the subject of fiscal equity lawsuits, dating back to at least the 1970s, when California’s Supreme Court ruled that the state’s education system, which relied largely on property taxes, was violating the rights of students living in poverty to access a quality education. The EdBuild report (2019) notes:

The inherent links between race and class in our country haven’t been remedied by school-funding lawsuits nor the passage of time. They remain ever present, and while we have made some progress on the issue of economic inequality in our schools, we still have a terribly inequitable system…This is unlikely to change unless we finally commit ourselves to challenging the funding aspect of local control. (p. 5)

Inequity #2: Allocation of human resources. The persistent practice of assigning the least-experienced principals and teachers to the most challenging schools and classrooms is another glaring inequity. This common practice leads to constant turnover in low-income schools as an under-prepared workforce attempts to address the multiple unmet needs of students in under-resourced schools.

The COVID pandemic exacerbated this problem. It precipitated a flood of early retirements and other departures from the teaching force that has caused some districts to provide emergency certification for less-qualified personnel.

An added dimension of this challenge is the racial and cultural mismatch between teachers and students: Currently, 80% of the country’s teachers are white while approximately 54% of students are children of color. The pattern in racial and ethnic diversity among the nation’s public school principals mirrors that of teachers, with educators of color constituting only 20% of U.S. public school principals in 2015–2016.

Inequity #3: Inadequate facilities. Where we educate our children says a great deal about the value our society places on them. Nearly one-third of public school buildings were deemed to be in fair or poor condition, and the American Society of Civil Engineers (2017) gave public K–12 infrastructure a grade of D+ on its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card. Moreover, the Healthy Buildings program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (2017) shows that environmental exposures in school buildings—mold, poorly ventilated air, uncomfortable temperatures, noise, or inadequate lighting—can negatively impact student health, thinking, and performance.

According to a Government Accountability Office (2020) report, “The need for investments in school facilities is unequally distributed, with the greatest need for improvements in schools serving high shares of students in poverty, which, in turn, are often located in communities of color.” As readers will see in the Cincinnati case study, a court decision affirming the terrible state of school facilities in that city provided the impetus for creating their Community Learning Centers (community schools) initiative—as is true in Baltimore, Los Angeles, and other locales.

Inequities in school finance, allocation of human resources, and physical facilities are exacerbated by the conditions in the neighborhoods and communities where students live.

The Inextricable Link Between Schools and Their Communities

Public school students are influenced by the assets, as well as by the many problems, of their neighborhoods and communities. When a school is embedded in a place with extreme and unremitting conditions of poverty and racial isolation, educators face daunting challenges.

We address an uncomfortable truth: The disinvestment in the nation’s most marginalized schools is emblematic of the disinvestment in the marginalized communities that surround these schools. As a result, neighborhood challenges that often include substandard housing, decaying infrastructure, and unrelenting violence compound the problems facing children and families.

Two stories from our community schools experience underscore this reality. When CAS was invited to partner with a high-poverty school in East Harlem (New York City), the needs and assets assessment revealed that fully 40% of students in the school suffered from chronic asthma. This contributed to high rates of chronic student absenteeism and, concomitantly, low rates of student achievement. Further investigation revealed that many families in the neighborhood lived in substandard public housing rife with mold, moisture, and vermin. In addition, the school bordered a busy New York City highway that resulted in high air pollution throughout the neighborhood, including its homes, schools, and outdoor spaces.

Student activism in New York City
Student activism in New York City
Courtesy of A+ NYC

While transforming this school from a traditional public school into a community school could not solve all the neighborhood’s environmental problems, several interventions proved helpful, including setting up a school-based health center in the building and establishing an asthma management program to teach students and parents how to prevent asthma-related emergencies. In addition, a newly formed parents’ group began to meet with city officials to address some of the environmental justice issues facing the neighborhood.

A second example: Students and staff from the University of Pennsylvania’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships asked 6th graders at Andrew Hamilton School in West Philadelphia how they envisioned transforming their school’s physical environment. The students stepped up with answers. Together with their principal and other school leaders, the students wanted to convert underutilized plots of grass and gravel behind their school into a clean, calm, edible community garden. The desire for the space and the benefits that could accompany its transformation laid bare the aggregated environmental injustices impacting the high-poverty Cobbs Creek neighborhood and its schools: high levels of heat and pollution, flooding, a need for safe outdoor spaces, and a scarcity of accessible healthy food. Together, Andrew Hamilton School, the university, and other local organizations created and maintained an edible garden with over 30 raised beds, a food forest along the school’s perimeter, and multiple rain gardens on the school’s blacktop. In addition to providing local and organic produce to the school and community, the new garden should reduce the school’s urban heat island and capture excess stormwater from floods. Ongoing developments include adding murals, outdoor furniture, signage, and environmental sensors in order to further transform the greenery into safe places to enjoy nature and to learn and teach practical skills—such as growing food, running small businesses, utilizing data, and engaging in storytelling.

These vignettes are indicative of challenges in many communities where racism and poverty converge. Such challenges are significantly the result of public policies across a wide spectrum—including environmental, housing, transportation, taxation, health, and social welfare—that converge in negative ways to the detriment of local communities and their residents.

These examples also illustrate what can happen when schools and their partners take a strengths-based approach that recognizes and builds on the assets and resilience of many high-poverty communities while addressing very real challenges. Indeed, building on community strengths has always been a core principle of our community schools work. We have urged local initiatives to apply the tools of Asset-Based Community Development, a methodology that honors the “capacities, skills, and assets of lower-income people and their neighborhoods” (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1996) and listens to their voices as an integral part of community schools development (Collaborative for Neighborhood Transformation, n.d.).

More than 40 years ago, psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner (1981) provided concepts and a language that supported this understanding about the inextricable link between schools and communities. His ecological theory of human development explained how every aspect of a child’s environment affects how the child grows and develops. This focus on the ecosystem approach to children’s development sheds light on the reciprocal relationship among students, schools, and communities.

Public schools have a unique role in that ecosystem. Operating as a bridge between students and communities, schools can help improve the well-being of both, and in so doing function better as educational institutions. This is what can happen when public schools become part of the community schools revolution, embodying core American values of learning, community, and democracy.

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