Race and Status in School Spending: Chicago, 1961-1966 (Harold M. Baron, 1971)

Synopsis by Chelsea Birchmier

“Race and Status in School Spending,” which appeared in The Journal of Human Resources in 1971, is an empirical study examining expenditures per pupil by race and socioeconomic status in public schools in the city of Chicago and suburban Cook County from 1961­–66. Baron begins by reviewing the existing literature, most of which studied differential education by status while “race was at best relegated to a minor position in these analyses.” It was only, he suggests, the Civil Rights Movement and Black community activity that led to any “extensive study of urban schools as instruments for maintaining racial subjugation.” Baron references sociological studies showing the institutional mechanisms by which status dictated treatment in schools and economic studies showing the inverse relation between expenditures per pupil and status, as well as between expenditures and race. He also points to a more hidden spatial form of race and class difference in school spending: the monetary advantage of the suburbs over the central cities, which predominated by 1960, precipitated by middle and upper class white flight to the suburbs. In the few studies that compared spending in individual schools within a city, expenditures were negatively related to race and socioeconomic status. Looking at education spending as an investment in human capital, institutional racism in and out of school meant a lower rate of return for Black people. When the relation between per pupil expenditures and test scores, a measure of rate of return, was measured, for the most part, achievement increased with expenditures. An exception to this finding was the Coleman Report from the U.S. Office of Education, which found little to no association between educational expenditures and achievement. Baron notes, however, several methodological critiques and contrasting findings using Coleman’s own data. Finally, Baron writes that financial resources limited what could or could not be done, but the decisive factors in education (in)equality were processes of education and socialization in individual schools. Schools preserved intergenerational privilege by training white students to be racist and Black students to accept racism; they effectively acted as “instruments of social control.”

Baron’s study breaks down educational spending by race and status in Chicago and Cook County public elementary schools in 1961, 1963, and 1966. While there were protests against school segregation and inequality in prior years, it was in 1961 that these became sustained through the Civil Rights Movement, making 1961 “the last year during which the Chicago Board of Education was able to administer without challenge a system of racial and class favoritism.” Prior to this, the Black community was not prioritized as stakeholders by the Chicago Board of Education, unlike business and political interests and “middle-class good-schools” organizations.

In 1961, school spending was on average $77 more per pupil in white schools than Black schools and $67 greater in high status than low status schools. The expenditures for biracial schools fell midway between white and Black schools. The greatest racial disparity in spending was in low status schools, and the greatest status differential in spending was in biracial schools. Within each racial group, spending increased with status. This bias in funding was driven by a pattern of teacher assignment such that more experienced teachers with higher salaries were assigned to white and higher status schools, the number of teachers per pupil (greater for white schools), classroom size (with white high status classrooms being the least crowded and Black and biracial schools being the most), double-shift schools in which students, 90% of whom were Black, were forced to attend school in shifts due to overcrowding, and a wide range of administrative practices. Chicago’s centralized city education system did limit differentials when compared to the decentralized municipal suburban school districts. The $155 differential in spending between low-status and high-status schools alone in the suburbs was greater than the difference in spending between low-status Black and high-status white schools in the city. In the suburbs, the gap between medium and high status schools was larger than that between low and medium status schools. Overall, spending in Chicago schools fell between spending for low and medium status schools in Cook County.

Between 1961 and 1963, “the Chicago Board of Education was the target of the most hard-fought and extensive protest campaign that had taken place in Chicago since the end of World War II” and faced mass demonstrations and civil disobedience locally in tandem with a rising national movement. The response of Superintendent Benjamin Willis to build more de facto segregated schools in Black neighborhoods reduced classroom crowding somewhat. Additionally, some changes in teacher assignment and compensatory programs for Black schools led to a reduction of disparities such that in 1963 school spending was $48 more per pupil in white schools than Black schools and $41 greater in high status than low status schools (compared to $77 and $67 in 1961, respectively). While appropriations remained greater for suburban schools, the gap in spending declined in suburban schools relative to Chicago schools.

By 1966, racial inequality in education had gained national attention. In 1965, the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) provided funds for special programs in school districts for children from low-income families and children with disabilities. Baron analyzes the change in expenditures without and with ESEA funds. When ESEA funds were not taken into account, the racial gap in spending remained the same as it was in 1963. In other words, the Chicago Board of Education did not continue its attempts to equalize expenditures across race and status. When the ESEA funds were taken into consideration, the racial and status disparities significantly narrowed or disappeared. Baron points out that the ESEA funds, which were meant to compensate for social inequalities and discrimination in the larger system beyond the schools, really only compensated for the inequalities still perpetuated by local and state school budgeting. These funds then served as an attempt to placate the demands of the Civil Rights and Black community organizations. In suburban schools, stratification by status and race continued with little impact from ESEA funds, which few Cook County schools were eligible for since most extremely poor families receiving public assistance lived in Chicago. The gap between medium and high status schools in the suburbs continued to widen. While in 1966 the gaps between low and medium status schools in Chicago reversed and disappeared relative to low and medium status schools in the suburbs, respectively, the high status, almost entirely white, schools in the suburbs increased or maintained their advantage relative to all status groups in the city and to the low and medium status schools in the suburbs. Baron argues that the advantage of high status school districts in the suburbs was not primarily due to taxes but rather to the higher property values per pupil in the high status suburbs.

Baron concludes that “protest paid off—somewhat.” In 1963, the Chicago Civil Rights Movement won a decrease in discrimination in school spending, although they did not achieve desegregation, their main goal. They also, as part of a national movement, won funding from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Racial oppression continued despite changes in school spending, however, via the socialization processes in Chicago schools; “a school program imbued with the general racism of the society is culturally oppressive of black children, regardless of the sums spent.” Additionally, funds were not necessarily spent on resources that improved educational quality, such as high quality staff or programs. Instead, many ESEA funds were spent in the form of “conspicuous consumption” which was more symbolic than beneficial to Black students and families. Finally, Baron concludes that high status suburban schools were able to maintain their advantage in school expenditures from 1961 to 1966 despite the changes wrought by the Civil Rights Movement and ESEA funds. Quoting Charles Benson in The Cheerful Prospect, he writes:

There is good reason that discussion about educational inequalities is muted. After all, the handsome couples in the suburbs who deplore de facto segregation in the large cities and who are so daring as to form local committees on fair practice in housing, are the ones who have a major stake in preserving the lifetime advantages that their privileged, though tax-supported, school offers their children (p. 20).