School Backpack Drives Offer Insight into Equitable School Funding

Students are back in class in Georgia now and many students from low-income families are carrying new backpacks filled with supplies through the kindness of strangers.

Georgia’s Department of Education last month issued its annual plea for donated backpacks and supplies for the state’s “students in need.” The “Stuff the Bus” news stories popped up across Georgia and in communities in other states in recent weeks, showcasing the work of people and organizations  chipping in to help students start the school year with the basics needed to start school.

The need for initiatives like the ones here in Georgia is obvious. Everyone knows the terror of trying to start a class assignment and finding out you lack both a sheet of paper and pencil. Starting the school year without the necessary school supplies can very well slow student growth and mask potential.

These school supply drives hold an important lesson about the broader state of U.S. education policy. Expert research and evidence from other states shows students arrive at school with a wide range of support needed for success. It’s a reality fervently embraced at the local level through things like backpack donations but rejected at the state and national funding level.

Not all students head off to school with the same access to resources, an obvious fact of life that plays an important role in the classroom. Last year’s GBPI survey on the effects of poverty in Georgia schools covered in depth the disparities among students’ household incomes in Georgia and also the drag poverty imposes on student success.

If a student arrives at school with all supplies in tow, it is unlikely a second backpack will be given to them for free in the name of equality. School supply drives tend to operate on the principle of equity, or the taking care of needs based on what it will take to help a student succeed. That is not the same as equality or treating all people the same. The concepts of equity and equality are often debated when it’s time to allot school funding. Instead of a completely equal system where schools are allotted the same dollars for each child, state lawmakers are shifting to funding students based on the challenges they face. In some cases, this shift is prompted by state supreme courts. In Georgia this change began with the passage of the Quality Basic Education Act in 1985.

So, poverty is intrinsically tied to student learning. But state lawmakers in Georgia and across the nation too often reject this connection. You might recall a 2016 statewide referendum on whether to give the state the authority to change the governance of individual schools with low test scores. The proposal went by the name Opportunity School District. The state’s proposed remedies to fix the selected schools included requiring a change to a charter school, consolidation with another school or complete closure.

Opponents argued schools up for state takeover were overwhelmingly segregated based on race and income. These schools stood to be punished for student performance caused by high concentrations of poverty and not lack of effort. Supporters claimed poverty was a weak excuse used to lower the bar for some communities, research on the initiative revealed.

But poverty can seriously hinder educational success, according to mountains of research. It’s likely one of the steepest hurdles to educational attainment. Last year’s GBPI report on poverty in schools documents some of the unique challenges children from low-income households face. Those include increased housing instability and mental health problems in Georgia’s high-poverty school districts. Seventy percent of Georgia’s school district leaders surveyed for the report said poverty is the most significant out-of-school issue that limits student learning.

Compounding the challenges of low-income families is America’s history of placing systematic barriers between people of color and success. Slavery and Jim Crow, low investment in schools where students are primarily black or Hispanic, and exclusion of African-Americans from mortgage loans and jobs continues to stand in the way of the educational success of many young Georgians.

Equity in school funding can close the test score gaps created by these barriers, research shows. So, it is encouraging that Georgians support directing more state resources in ways that make the state’s education finances more equitable. A clear majority of Georgians support a state school funding formula that sends more money to districts that serve a large number of students from families in poverty, according to a GBPI-commissioned statewide poll conducted last month.

This time each year as school starts kind people donate their time and backpacks filled with supplies in a noble attempt to level the playing field for children who need some help to keep up with their more affluent counterparts. A better day will come when Georgia doesn’t need to rely on bookbag donations to offer equity in schooling.

Until that day, please donate.

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