Funding gaps between school districts that serve the highest percentages of students of color and those that serve the fewest are well established, as are the achievement gaps that follow, according to University of South Carolina School of Law professor Derek Black. But it was while conducting research for his most recent book, School House Burning, that Black says he uncovered the dark origins of these gaps that continue to this day.
In conjunction with ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, Southern states were also in the process of rewriting their constitutions, which included education clauses that placed school funding responsibility on the state. Black noticed the Southern states that re-wrote their constitutions during the rise of Jim Crow in the late 1800s and early 1900s shifted education funding and decision-making responsibilities away from the centralized state government and towards local level governments. One potential purpose for these changes might have been to allow for discrimination at the local level that would have been challenged at the state level under the Fourteenth Amendment. Regardless, this model remains the primary method of public-school funding throughout the United States.
Black, who holds the Ernest F. Hollings Chair in Constitutional Law, hopes to expand on his findings by discovering whether today’s funding gaps in public education can be traced to the calculated changes made by segregationists at state constitutional conventions during this period to deliberately circumvent the Fourteenth Amendment’s requirement of equal access.
He will be able to answer that question, thanks to funding from the new Racial Justice and Equity Research Fund. The grant will allow Black and a research fellow to investigate the provisions and debates that took place during these Southern state constitutional conventions. They will also research how these debates were covered in local newspapers at the time and how public policy changed as a result.
If today’s funding gaps can be tied back to these constitutional changes—and are not neutral or inevitable as some have argued—then they are subject to legal attacks that may bring about true equity for all students.
“My hope is that by seriously considering the historic role race played in shifting school funding responsibility from state to local government, the illegitimacy of current school funding inequities will become more evident,” says Black.
Created by the university’s Office of the Vice President for Research in collaboration with the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, the Racial Justice and Equity Research Fund supports research that centers on race, racial justice and racial equity with the aim of promoting real and lasting racial justice in our local community, our state and our nation.
“We are so proud to announce the first round of grants from the Racial Justice and Equity Research Fund,” said Vice President for Research Prakash Nagarkatti in an October statement announcing the recipients and their projects. “By supporting these projects, which seek to better understand how race functions in our educational, criminal justice and legal systems, our goal is to foster the creation of a better future for all.