Economics of Urban Education: Race, Resources, and Control in Schools

Richard O. Welsh

In an historic era of widening social and economic inequality accompanied by unparalleled technological advances, a central concern facing educational stakeholders is whether public education is a vehicle of educational opportunity or racial and economic oppression. Economic inequality, as captured by differences in income or wealth, is widening and the wealth divide among families is stark (Pew Research Center, 2020). Indeed, wealth inequality in contemporary American society rivals that of the Great Depression era (Hacker & Pierson, 2010). Over time, the income of upper-income households have grown noticeably faster than those of middle and lower-income households and the median wealth of middle income families rose 42% between 1983 and 2001 compared to 67% for lower-income families and 85% for upper-income families (Pew Research Center, 2020). Unfortunately, the inequities in the general economy appear to be replicated rather than counteracted by the pre-K—12 public education system. The underachievement of poor students and students of color due to inequitable opportunities in public education has been widely documented (Milner & Lomotey, 2014). Scholars have debated the distribution of school quality in the United States (U.S.) and its relation to economic, social, and cultural capital as well as the reproduction of inequality (Downey, Quinn, & Alcaraz, 2019). The increasingly apparent racial differences in long-term educational and economic outcomes raises serious efficacy and equity concerns about the pre-K—12 public school system. The transformative power of education is being questioned by educational stakeholders and experts alike at the same moment when its manifestation is most needed.

These inequities in the economy and public education provide an opportune moment to revisit the link between urban education and the economy. In recent decades, the field of the economics of education has grown in prominence as educational stakeholders and policymakers become increasingly concerned with how resources are allocated and organized in the K—12 public school system (Brewer & Welsh, 2014). Discussions on the conceptualization of urban education coupled with social and economic phenomena such as gentrification and demographic shifts have challenged the definition of what is an urban school and district (Milner, 2012; Welsh & Swain, 2020). The peculiarities of urban education, namely the liminal nature of the characteristics of urban districts and schools, complicate the relationship between economics and urban education in ways that warrant further exploration.

This chapter provides an overview of the economics of urban education. Economics of urban education is viewing the features of urban education through economics lens. At its core, economics is concerned with the allocation and distribution of scarce resources. Thus, economics provides a lens to frame educational problems as issues of resource allocation and distribution, as well as a framework to examine the tensions between individual and collective responsibility through the differences in individual and societal costs and benefits to education. 1 apply an economic analytic lens to better understand the nexus of inequality in schooling and society in the midst of ongoing transformations in urban school districts. The chapter draws attention to the interconnectivity of inequality in education and the economy and posits that the inequality in education is a reinforcing product of the inequality in society. There is a feedback loop between economic inequality and educational inequality. Many of the inequities in society are manifested in the disparities in education, and this educational inequality in turn sustains and expands the inequality in society. This chapter contends that students of color are receiving stark unequal resources beyond school funding. A prime example of the unequal distribution of resources in learning conditions is school discipline. I posit that unequal learning conditions is a function and outcome of resource allocation in education and argue that a critical phenomenon shaping the allocation of resources in urban education is the shift from viewing education as a public good to consuming education as a private good.

The rest of the chapter proceeds as follows. First, I outline the prevailing education economics landscape and its relevance for urban education. I then link the conceptualization of urban education to the focus of the economics of urban education — educational inequality. I discuss three issues at the heart of the unequal distribution of resources in education and address the following questions: (1) How do we define and measure educational equity? (2) How do we equitably and adequately fund urban education? and (3) How do we change policies and practices in urban education to enhance learning conditions for students of color?

The Contemporary Education Economics Landscape

Education and the economy in urban areas are linked in profound ways. Relative funding is a central concept underlying the relationship between education and the economy. Relative funding is the notion that regional markets are central for the link between education and the economy. In the U.S., education and economy are linked more at the regional rather than the national or local levels. The regional labor market provides access for talent and job opportunities for graduates. Schooling is labor intensive, and the quality of schooling depends on the human capital of regional labor markets (Baker, 2014). The social and economic structure in urban districts is also intricately tied to relative funding. Poverty, unemployment, and economic opportunity is a function of relative funding as graduates’ access to post-secondary and labor market opportunities are mostly relative and regional (Baker, 2014).

Race and class are central to understanding the issues in education and society. Hanushek and Yilmaz (2011) surmised that “much of the educational story of the United States can be summarized by economic status and race” (p. 583). The schooling preferences of American families have replicated the racial segregation in schools that riddles neighborhoods and shaped the demographic composition of urban school districts (Welsh, 2019). For the most part, students of color and White students do not attend the same schools. Moreover, the demographic mismatch between students and adults in schools provide a canvas for racial misgivings in society to be manifested in education. Data from the 2017—2018 school year from the National Center for Education Statistics illustrates the magnitude of the racial mismatch in K—12 schools: (a) most public school students are nonWhite (53%), (b) the overwhelming majority of teachers are White (79%) (only 7% and 9% of teachers are Black and Latinx, respectively), and (c) most principals are White (78%) (only 11% and 8% of principals are Black and Latinx, respectively).

The educational landscape is mired in inequality that mirrors society. The disparities in student outcomes (test scores, graduation rates, etc.) between White and Black students is reminiscent of gaps in economic outcomes. Black students are substantially less likely to be academically proficient on state standardized tests than White students (Morris & Perry, 2017). Since the 1980s, there has been negligible progress in closing the gap in test scores between Black and White students (Hanushek, Peterson, Talpey, & Woesmann, 2019). Shores, Kim, and Still (2020) found that Black-White disparities in educational outcomes such as disciplinary rates, test scores, and AP course taking are correlated and racial differences in family income and parent education constantly predicted these disparities. The economic landscape is characterized by racial income and wealth gaps that places a toll on communities of color (Noel, Pinder, Stewart, & Wright, 2019). For instance, Chetty, Hendren, Jones, and Porter (2020) found that Black men have considerably lower incomes when compared to White men who were raised in similar circumstances and provide important evidence elucidating what others have termed the “Black male crisis” (Noguera, 2014). There is a homeownership gap between Black and White young adults — White adults have a home ownership rate of 42% compared to 18% for their Black counterparts (Choi, Zhu, & Goodman, 2018). Conversely, African Americans face a significantly higher probability of ending up in prison compared to other racial and ethnic groups — Black people are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of Whites (NAACP, 2019). In many ways, African Americans have borne the brunt of the burden of inequality in society (Scott & Holme, 2016).

Sociologist Prudence Carter has highlighted that racial and economic inequality is a product of sociohistorical and political phenomena that have shaped social boundaries (Carter, 2016). The dynamics of urban demography and space have changed over time and shaped in part by racialized politics (Scott & Holme, 2016). The evidence of social reproduction in schools has been linked to “spatial causality” that posits that geographic spaces (patterns of racial and economic isolation) reproduce inequality by shaping the distribution of opportunity and resources (Scott & Holme, 2016). The current epoch is characterized by diversity in suburbs, increasing gentrification, and concentrated poverty and prosperity in relatively close proximity. Regardless of the economic transformation, education remains systematically unequal. Scott and Holme (2016) capture this sentiment eloquently — “Even as urban spaces have undergone significant alterations — changing from thriving centers of industry, to hubs of finance, technology and artistic expression — the children of those made poor by these economic alterations have rarely been well served” (p. 284). Moreover, schools also shape the urban environment in ways that deepen inequality (Scott & Holme, 2016). Conversely, some scholars have raised questions about the role of schools in perpetuating inequality. Downey et al. (2019) found that the impact on test scores of schools serving poor or Black children was no different from that of schools serving poor or White children. In essence, the link between schools and inequality is complex, evolves over time, and requires periodical rethinking based upon social, economic, and political trends.

Evidence from the contemporary education economics landscape suggests that the relationship between education and economy is fostering inequality rather than facilitating opportunity. Educational inequality is worsening economic inequality, and vice versa. Yet, there seems to be preference and propensity to view educational problems through a color-blind or race-neutral lens which in turn defines educational issues in such a way that education policy and practice often neglects the primacy of race and ignores the remnants of racial acrimony in the U.S. Scholars have highlighted “the need for a multidimensional understanding of inequality to solve its attendant problems” (Carter, 2019). The economics of urban education can respond to the contemporary education economics landscape by explicating inequality in education and its connection to the economy with an intentional focus on the centrality of race and educational equity.

Conceptualizing and Defining the Economics of Urban Education

Among educational researchers, practitioners, and policymakers, there is no universal definition of “urban education” (Buendia, 2011; Milner, 2012; Noguera, 2003). Shifting demographics of neighborhoods, increasing diversity of students, widespread disparities within districts and schools nationwide, and an evolving socioeconomic structure have further muddled the definition of urban education and the categorization of urban versus non-urban districts (Jacobs, 2015; Noguera, 2017). Defining and conceptualizing urban education remains a conceptual and empirical challenge (Milner, 2012; Welsh & Swain, 2020). As one considers the tenets of the economics of urban education, a prerequisite is to ask: but what is urban education?

The definition of urban education posited in this chapter is largely based on a conceptual review and empirical exploration of the definition of urban education by Welsh and Swain (2020). Welsh and Swain (2020) found that no single quantitative measure fully captures the complexity of urban education, and based on the prevailing definitions of urban education in the extant literature, a substantial number of smaller districts with similar levels of educational inequality of larger districts may be overlooked. Notwithstanding, most definitions of “urban” identify a set of districts with high concentrations of Black and Hispanic students, high levels of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic segregation, in communities with high income inequality, high poverty, and high educational attainment (Welsh & Swain, 2020). Welsh and Swain (2020) highlighted that at the district level, urban education is defined more by inequality than by pure demographic concentration, and the changes represented by increasing gentrification amplifies the evolving nature of the salience of race and class in schooling. Thus, the economics of urban education ought to contribute to a richer understanding of the role of resources in the complex conversion process of racial economic inequality into racial educational inequality (and vice versa).

Inequality in Education and Race

The application of economic theory to urban education policy is not a new concept (Hanushek & Yilmaz, 2011; McEachin & Brewer, 2013). The economics of education has focused on issues that are pertinent to urban education such as school finance and teacher labor markets (Brewer & Welsh, 2014). Notwithstanding, equity is not traditionally a lens assumed in the economics of education. What has seemingly been missing is a coalescing of economic frameworks with critical theoretical frameworks, such as Critical Race Theory (CRT), that are appropriate for examining the conditions of traditionally marginalized communities in the context of the prevailing inequality in education and society. In some ways, traditional disciplines, such as economics, often neglect the voices and experiences of marginalized communities; thus, the economics of urban education should prioritize the experiences, opportunities, and outcomes of marginalized and historically oppressed people in discussions about the allocation of resources in K—12 public education.

The economics of urban education is concerned with the economics of inequality in education — its roots and potential solutions. Breaking the vicious cycle between educational inequality and economic inequality should be at the forefront of the economics of urban education. The economics of urban education compels education researchers to center the link between race and the unequal distribution of resources in the dynamics of inequality. Scholars have employed CRT

to unpack, shed light on, problematize, disrupt, and analyze how systems of oppression, marginalization, racism, inequity, hegemony, and discrimination are pervasively present and ingrained in the fabric of policies, practices, institutions, and systems in education that have important bearings on students — all students — even though most of the studies reviewed did not address race in this way.

(Milner, 2013, p. 1)

In applying CRT (Ladson-Billings, 1998), one of the starting premises of the economics of urban education is that normalized racism in society and schools plays an important role in the unequal distribution of resources. CRT is useful for: (a) examining the interaction of the purpose of education and race, and (b) storytelling of resources that center race and amplify the voices of educators, students, and families (Ladson-Billings, 1998). In sum, the economics of urban education can be characterized as the study of inequality issues relating to the public education of students of color.

From Public to Private Good

Education is widely considered as a public good, and this presumption often provides the justification for government funding and provision of education (Plank, 2014). Pure public goods are non-rival and non-excludable in consumption and, by this strict yardstick, education is not a pure public good (Plank, 2014). Notwithstanding, public investment in education is typically justified using other rationales such as socialization for effective citizenship, and if solely left to the market for schooling, education would be underinvested and underproduced (Plank, 2014). Although human capital theorists and empirical evidence have illustrated that education is a good investment for both individuals and the society (Brewer & Welsh, 2014; Jackson, Johnson, & Pérsico, 2016), over time, education has morphed from a public good to a private good.

Labaree (1997) argues that the evolution of public education is marked by conflicting goals and the current epoch is characterized by the goal of social mobility. How society' has viewed the purpose of education has changed over time from the development of the model citizen (democratic equality) and worker (social efficiency) to an increasingly' intense competition for credential (social mobility). In this era, education is largely' viewed as a currency to attain social status and social positions. As Labaree (1997) notes, “the aim is to get more of this valuable commodity' than one’s competitors, which puts a premium on a form of education that is highly stratified and unequally' distributed” (p. 42).

The shift in mindset that treats education as a private good creates conditions for inequality' in education to thrive. In other words, educational inequality is exacerbated when education is viewed as a private good. Scholars such as Nikole Hannah Jones have highlighted the difficulties in navigating tensions between individual choices to benefit their own children versus community values about integration (Kirk, 2018; Welsh, 2019). The appetite and preferences for integration and other equity-enhancing reforms is related to the conceptualization of education as a private rather than a public good (Welsh, 2019). The evolution of education as a private good has also been accompanied by' the rise of market-oriented policies in education (Scott & Holme, 2016).

Defining and Measuring Educational Equity

I contend that one of the primary conceptual and empirical imperatives of the economics of urban education is defining and measuring educational equity. Stakeholders that influence education policy generally' “place equity at the center of both their understanding of the problem in public education and the reforms they advocate” (Bulkley, 2013, p. 20). In general, equity is a term used to describe the efforts and the distribution of tangible and intangible resources needed to produce fairness, and ensure that individuals have what they' need to be successful (Alexander, 2014). Equity can be defined in myriad ways including but not limited to: (a) access to educational resources, (b) compliance with the law, and (c) students’ opportunities to learn (McDermott, Mahanty, & Schreckenberg, 2011). Equity' has come to dominate the parlance of practitioners, policymakers, and scholars, but consensus on what equity' means and the exact nature of equitable policies and practices remain elusive (Bulkley, 2013; Castro, 2015; Unterhalter, 2009). Prior work has established that educational equity' is a contested notion and a catch-all term for discussing marginalized and disadvantaged populations (Bulkley, 2013; Scheurich et al., 2017). Moreover, accompanying the absence of a universal definition (the definitional gap of educational equity') has been unresolved questions about how equity is measured (the assessment gap of educational equity). These definitional and assessment gaps have significant implications for policy and practice.

Defining and measuring educational equity establishes policy “boundaries” (Stone, 1997). The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015 raises significant educational equity questions for districts and schools (Egalite, Fusarelli, & Fusarelli, 2017; Young, Winn, & Reedy, 2017). Although educational equity is a major goal of ESSA (Egalite et al., 2017; Young et al., 2017), a growing number of scholars have highlighted that equity and civil rights enforcement are seemingly being outsourced to states (Fernandez, LeChasseur, & Weiner, 2017; Lewis, Garces, & Frankenberg, 2019) and demonstrated how equity concerns may affect issues such as college and career readiness and states’ accountability systems (Fernandez et al., 2017; Young et al., 2017). Several educational stakeholders have pointed to what appears to be a retreat from civil rights protection by the Trump administration (Huseman & Waldman, 2017; Lewis et al., 2019). In particular, some interpret the decision to rescind the Obama administrations guidance on transgender students and bathrooms, the new process for civil rights complaints, positions on campus rape, the hiring of former for-profit education executives to oversee the student loan program, and reversing the Obama-era guidance on K—12 school discipline as mounting evidence that federal protection for at-risk students is declining (Blad, 2017; Huseman & Waldman, 2017).

Defining and measuring educational equity is nuanced and complex, yet pivotal to inform the supports and services in the educational system, as well as new directions for policies and practices. It is hard to advance educational equity if there is little common ground on the nature of the target and a yardstick for progress. If equity is determining how to configure educational systems to meet the needs of disadvantaged and marginalized students, then it is becoming increasingly clear, especially with the changing demographic composition of public schools, that equity and efficiency are neither antithetical nor mutually exclusive. Educational equity permeates all the connective tissues of an educational system from school finance to teacher preparation and curriculum development. Another key question is who is responsible for policing and enforcing educational equity. The consideration of the enforcement of educational equity raises important questions on the interplay of local districts, states, and the federal government. It is an open conceptual and empirical question of how these various branches of the educational governance of public education work in unison to enhance and sustain educational equity.

Equitably and Adequately Funding Urban Education

I posit that school funding is one of the primary sources of the unequal distribution of resources that foment inequality in education. School spending has been one of the most controversial topics in education policy and research. School resources inform parents’perceptions of school quality, as well as taxpayers’ perceptions on the relationship between resources and school performance (Hanushek, 2006). Per pupil spending roughly doubled between 1970 and 2000 (Jackson et al., 2016). In the 2016—2017 school year, elementary and secondary public school revenues totaled $736 billion with 8% derived from federal sources, 47% from state sources, and 45% from local sources. Over the twentieth century, states and federal role in school funding has increased and there is marked variations across states in revenue sources (Hanushek & Yilmaz, 2011). School funding and resource allocation vary widely across states and districts (Baker et al., 2014). Differences in school funding and school resources across neighborhoods are often linked to achievement gaps by income and race/ethnicity (Jackson et al., 2016).

A longstanding concern of educational stakeholders is the increase in funding without the requisite increase in performance (Hanushek, 2003). The understanding of the impact of resources on student achievement has evolved substantially since Coleman et al.’s (1966) landmark report on educational opportunity. The early debate on school finance unpacked mixed interpretations of largely correlational evidence on funding and student achievement (Greenwald, Hedges, & Laine, 1996; Hanushek, 2003). Some scholars found that resources are related to student outcomes leading to the notion that increased spending is associated with an increase in achievement (Greenwald et al., 1996). Other scholars found no strong relation between resources and achievement (Hanushek, 2003). A recent wave of studies provides compelling evidence that increased funding as a result of school finance reforms improve a range of student outcomes, such as test scores and adult wages (Kreisman & Steinberg, 2019; Jackson et al., 2016; Jackson, Wigger, & Xiong, 2018; LaFortune, Rothstein, & Schanzenbach, 2018). The increased spending was associated with an improvement in school inputs (Jackson et al., 2016; Jackson et al., 2018). Recent research also found that increased funding to poor school districts led to improvement in student achievement but did not reduce racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps (Lafortune et al., 2018). In his book, Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works, economist Rucker Johnson (2019) contends that the synergy among three education policies — school finance reforms, integration, and high-quality preschool — may provide the best path toward school improvement. Overall, there is a crystallizing consensus that money matters, especially for less fortunate students.

“Separate Schooling Always Allows for Differential Funding”

This from Gloria Ladson-Billings’ (2006) presidential essay encapsulates the importance of school finance in urban education. In applying CRT to school funding, Ladson-Billings (1998) noted that “CRT argues that inequality in school funding is a function of institutional and structural racism” (p. 20). Despite the efforts of policymakers, there are still gross disparities in school funding at many levels (Ed Trust, 2019). School spending is particularly significant for urban education given that nonwhite districts receive less funding (roughly $23 billion) than White districts (Ed Build, 2019). There are several contributors to the inequity in school finance including: (a) local taxable property wealth; (b) state school finance formulas; (c) flat allocation of state resources; (d) local tax policy and budgeting decisions; (e) racial, economic, and housing segregation; (f) changing demography; (g) regional labor markets, and (h) declining enrollment (Baker, 2014). Race and class are separate yet compounding factors in school spending (Ed Build, 2019). Race and socioeconomic status both contribute to disparities in school finance, but race seems to be the elephant in the room in the school finance debate.

The allocation of resources is one of the most important challenges in K—12 education policy-making that must be overcome to reduce inequality in education. Thus, establishing new funding models is an urgent imperative of the economics of urban education. Property tax is at the heart of school funding, as the gross majority of local funds supporting schools are mined from property taxes. Despite the demographic shifts across urban cores and suburbs, communities of color are largely constrained by inadequate tax base. The policy goal is to provide more funding to urban districts but the road to eliminating disparities in school funding is paved with obstacles of various complexions.

States should make and honor a commitment to maintain a progressive school finance system. Yet, even so, inequity is complex and poorly funded districts may still exist in a progressive school finance system (Baker, 2014). A reasonable starting goal would be for the state to increase per pupil spending by 25% in urban districts over a ten-year period based on the findings of Jackson et al. (2016). Given the slow pace of funding reforms (funding formulas are revised on average every 20 years [Roza, 2019]), states should also commit to a mandatory review of school funding formulas and processes every five years.

The federal government has an important role in funding in an equitable and adequate education. To be clear, the constitutional responsibility for K—12 education lies with the state rather than the federal government. Thus, the federal government supports schools primarily through funding starting with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965. States have a pivotal role in education finance, but we cannot rely on the states alone. Two areas in which the federal government can play a larger role in school funding are: (a) infrastructure (buildings, textbooks, etc.), and (b) “rainy day” funds to help mitigate the disruption of economic turmoil. School spending is susceptible to economic downturn or general instability in income and state tax revenues, especially in states that have education as a significant proportion of their budgets. Indeed, Jackson et al. (2018) highlighted that states with significant shares of school funding from state sources experienced the biggest decline in school spending during the Great Recession. Education, especially equity-related initiatives, are typically the first on the chopping block in the face of shrinking state budgets (Knight,

  • 2017) . Although federal stimulus in response to the 2008 Great Recession was helpful, it was inadequate and not targeted toward districts in most need (Shores, Kim, & Still, 2020). The federal government ought to play a more active role in insuring public education against economic downturns in states. In addition, an infusion of capital is necessary to lift the nations schooling facilities into the twenty-first century. Given that spending cuts typically affect non-core spending such as construction and to a lesser extent core operations such as instructional spending (Jackson et al.,
  • 2018) , federal funding for school infrastructure is a viable approach towards improving the quality of educational infrastructure and closing the disparities in physical educational resources available to White students and students of color. Federal funds should be the primary source of infrastructure improvements — the construction or maintenance of schools — in urban districts.

Unequal Learning Conditions

In addition to school finance, students of color also suffer from the unequal distribution of other schooling resources. These non-monetary resources range from instructional time and access to qualified and effective teachers to rapport with educators. The extant research suggests that the schooling experiences of students of color is vastly different from that of their White counterparts. For instance, Priest et al. (2018) found that there was significant negative racial stereotyping among adults working with students of color. Papageorge, Gerhenson, and Kang (2018) found that White teachers had lower expectations for Black students than Black teachers, as well as evidence suggesting that these low expectations were adversely related to student outcomes. Research has demonstrated that Black students benefit in myriad ways when their teachers are also Black (Joshi, Doan, & Springer, 2018; Papageorge et al., 2018).

In recent decades, school discipline policies and practices in K—12 education resulting in school exclusion have garnered substantial attention and represent an urgent challenge with significant policy and equity implications (Welsh & Little, 2018a, 2018b). About a third of all K—12 students experience school exclusion over the course of their K—12 schooling (Fabelo et al., 2011). Students of color experience exclusionary discipline (e.g., out-of-school suspensions) at higher rates than their peers (Skiba et al., 2014; Welsh & Little, 2018a). Data from the Civil Rights Data Collection demonstrates persistent nationwide racial disparities in suspensions — in 2015—16, African American students were three times more likely to receive an out of school suspension compared to their White peers (Shores et al., 2020). Although most of the prior research examining the influence of suspensions on student achievement has been correlational (Welsh & Little, 2018b), recent studies confirm the adverse impact of suspensions on student achievement (Lacoe & Steinberg, 2019; Chu & Ready, 2018). Some scholars have posited that the racial, income, and gender disparities in exclusionary disciplinary outcomes contribute to achievement gaps (Gregory, Skiba & Noguera, 2010). Prior research has found that disparities in suspensions contribute to achievement gaps by disproportionately removing low-income and minority students from the classroom and decreasing instructional time (Hwang, 2018; Losen, Hodson, Keith, Morrison, & Belway, 2015; Skiba, Mediratta, & Rausch, 2016). Racial disparities in exclusionary discipline also serve as key cog in the “school-to-prison pipeline” (Bacher-Hicks, Billings, & Deining, 2019; Welsh & Little, 2018a, 2018b). In total, exclusionary discipline is widespread — but students of color disproportionately bear the burden of school discipline.

Although discipline disparities are explained by multiple factors, recent evidence underlines the importance of classroom- and school-level variables (Skiba et al., 2014; Welsh & Little, 2018a). Race is a significant predictor of exclusionary discipline after accounting for poverty and regardless of behavior, African American students disproportionately experience school exclusion (Welsh & Little, 2018a). Little & Welsh (2019) found that school discipline approaches that predominantly focus on policing minor and subjective behavior may facilitate racial bias in enforcement. The racial discipline gap may be the product of the: (a) heightened focus on risk management, (b) cultural and demographic mismatch between the teaching workforce and students, and (c) transmission of dominant values through school discipline policies and practices that are reflective of upper- and middle-class norms (Little & Welsh, 2019).

Eliminating Caste and Control in Urban Education

In response to the racial, income, and gender disparities in disciplinary outcomes, the search for interventions to reduce the discipline gap has intensified at the federal, state and district levels in recent decades (Fabelo et al., 2011). The existing evidence indicates the potential of program-based approaches such as positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) and restorative practices (RP) to reduce the rates of office discipline referrals and suspensions, yet there is little evidence of the success of these programs in eliminating racial disparities in disciplinary outcomes (Welsh & Little, 2018a). The empirical evidence on how policy changes contribute to disciplinary outcomes is limited. In Los Angeles, since the shift away from the use of suspensions, districtwide school suspensions decreased and days lost as a result of suspensions decreased but discipline disparities remained (Hashim, Strunk, & Dhaliwal, 2018). In Arkansas, a statewide ban on suspensions for truancy did not improve the attendance of truant students (Anderson, Egalite, & Mills, 2019).

As the researcher in a research practice partnership with district leadership that focuses on K—12 school discipline policies and practices in a mid-sized urban school district in Georgia, I have constructed an evidence-based, strategic framework to provide direction for school discipline interventions (see Table 3.1). In the “3Ps of School Discipline Reform Framework,” I classify alternative approaches to exclusionary discipline into three categories: (a) policies, (b) programs, and (c) personnel. The most popular policy change is to revise the code of conduct to decrease the use of exclusionary discipline. Districts such as Los Angeles and Philadelphia prohibited the use of suspensions for willful defiance and certain types of non-violent behavior, especially in elementary grades. Revising the code of conduct provides an opportunity to rethink the approach to school discipline and signal to educational stakeholders and educators the necessity to move away from exclusionary discipline. PBIS and RP are popular school-level program-based initiatives. These approaches are not mutually exclusive and can be used collectively. Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is often seen as a prevention or antidote of sorts to school discipline challenges. Programs that foster professional learning and grow the professional capacity of adults in schools are also options to reduce discipline disparities. Bolstering the professional capacity of educators to address school discipline is an important challenge for district and school leaders given that educator buy in and adult learning are essential for interventions. One of the emerging approaches to reduce exclusionary discipline is to increase the number of support personnel (e.g., behavior interventionists, behavior specialists, etc.) in schools. Each strategic direction targets various and varying mechanisms such as teacher discretion, teacher-student interactions, and school climate. Each category also has short- and longterm options. For instance, support personnel may be employed in the short term, whereas teacher recruitment may be a longer-term strategic goal. Given the multiple contributors to discipline

Table 3.1 The 3Ps of School Discipline Reform Framework






  • a) Revise code of conduct (e.g., ban suspensions in early grades for non-violent/subjective offenses)
  • b) Provide more guidance on reporting (e.g., chart on office managed vs. classroom managed behaviors)
  • c) Other policy changes (e.g., ban suspensions for truancy)
  • a) Policy implementation
  • b) Compliance by educators
  • c) Unintended consequences


  • a) Implement one or more alternative approaches to exclusionary discipline (e.g., PBIS, RJ, MTP)
  • b) Intensify focus on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • c) Use strategic, sequential, and sustained professional development to bolster the professional capacity of school leaders, teachers, and support personnel
  • a) Program implementation
  • b) School leader and teacher buy-in
  • c) Capacity and structure of schools to deliver and maintain effective



  • a) Expand support personnel (i.e. hire more counselors, social workers, behavior specialists, etc.)
  • b) Recruit more minority teachers
  • a) Labor market constraints
  • b) Quality of personnel
  • c) Capacity of personnel
  • d) Educational governance implications

disparities, there is likely no silver bullet or panacea. There should also be coherency among the initiatives in the 3Ps framework.

A coordinated intergovernmental reform effort between federal, state, and local education agencies is needed to eradicate discipline disparities. There is a need for consistency at the federal level and a need to resist conflating school safety with school discipline. In 2014, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice released guidelines in a “Dear Colleague” letter that prompted a response by states and districts on school discipline policy. In 2018, this guidance was rescinded by the Trump administration. At the state level, enshrining the shift away from exclusionary discipline through policy changes and additional support for educators to bolster their professional capacity is a pivotal step forward. The district level is perhaps most important in the school discipline dilemma, yet it is marked by variation in approaches to school discipline. A 2019 report by the US Commission on Civil Rights using data from the 2017—2018 school year found that the number of school resource officers (SROs) in schools has increased over time, that roughly half of all schools use SROs, and that more schools are employing restorative practices. Thus, it seems that schools and districts are responding to the rates of and disparities in disciplinary outcomes by both hardening (e.g., more armed personnel) and softening (e.g., alternatives to exclusionary discipline) schools. It is important that districts provide the necessary support and resources that school leaders and teachers need to support the shift away from suspensions. District and school leaders must start with resource allocation and ask themselves — “Which ‘P’ from the 3Ps framework are you investing in, and why?”


The charge of the economics of urban education is to understand and rectify the inequality in education. The economics of urban education grapples with the notion that the variation in school resources is a central contributor to inequality in education. This chapter situates that redistribution of unequal resources (resources are broadly defined as monetary as well as non-monetary dimensions of the learning environment) as a source of school improvement in urban education and posits that the economics of urban education can help chart resource allocation to be commensurate with the cultural and pedagogical needs of children in the public schooling system. The contemporary education economics landscape calls for a renewed focus on the unequal distribution of resources and microscopic attention to the racial inequities in educational inputs. The economics of urban education has the potential to blend the application of traditional economic frameworks with critical theoretical lens to produce actionable information for policymakers and practitioners on inequality in urban school and districts.

Discussion Questions

  • 1. The first question is related to the shift in education as a private good and the link between inequality and the prevailing social and cultural attitudes about education. The challenge was perfectly articulated by Prudence Carter in her 2019 AERA Brown lecture: “Hou’ can we transform the values of education for collective purposes?” (Carter, 2019).
  • 2. The second question is related to the role of the federal government in rectifying unequal learning conditions: What is the appropriate role of the federal government in enhancing educational equity in urban education?
  • 3. As we seek to answer to call to disrupt punitive policies and practices in education (Milner, 2020; Welsh & Little, 2018a), the third question is related to resource allocation and school discipline: What resources are needed to (a) support school leaders and teachers to effectively manage student behavior without out-of-school suspensions, and (b) replace exclusion with instruction (e.g., bolstering the academic component of in-school suspensions)?


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