The U.S. South is home to a young and racially diverse student population. Nearly one in three public K-12 students in the country goes to school in the South (U.S. Census Bureau, 2019a), and about 40% of the country’s Black and Latino K-12 public school students live in southern states (U.S. Census Bureau, 2019b). This makes equitable education policies in the South important for every part of national educational policy.
IDRA is building a policy agenda for 2022 to promote education equity across the U.S. South. To set evidence-based and community-grounded policy priorities, we aligned our focus on four main priorities: fair public school funding, excellent education for emergent bilingual students, culturally-sustaining schooling and college preparation for all students.
Across all policy issues, IDRA advocates for equitable educational opportunities for historically marginalized students, especially Black, Latino and LGBTQ+ students. In this article, we discuss each of the four priority areas.
Fair School Funding
Contemporary research shows, not surprisingly, the positive impact of school funding on student outcomes (Jackson, 2020). States throughout the U.S. South have historically spent less than the national average on funding education. Southern states spent about $11,810 per pupil on education services while the national average sits at $13,118 (NCES, 2018). That difference translates to $32,700 per classroom of 25 students.
The overall lower level of spending was exacerbated by pandemic-related cuts in 2020, but this trend may be starting to shift. Several southern states have restored cuts made in 2020, and a few have even gone beyond previous levels. For example, Alabama leaders passed the largest state budget in its history in 2021 (Crain, 2021).
When leaders provide resources and rigor in the classroom, safe and inclusive learning environments, and unbounded opportunities for all students to realize their full potential, they build a better education system and carry the country forward in the march toward justice and a stronger future.
Other states across the South need to re-examine their school funding formulas to address persistent funding shortages. In 2021, Tennessee leaders began this process by conducting a 90-day review of the state’s current formula as well as a months-long public comment and committee process that resulted in a new proposal introduced in the 2022 Tennessee legislative session. Similarly, South Carolina’s Governor has proposed a new student-based formula to send more state money to school districts.
Others throughout the region may look to these states as examples to show how they may begin to close the funding gaps that have existed for decades.
On the other hand, Texas made formula changes in 2019 that still left imbalances between high and low wealth districts, inequities in targeting of funds, and insufficient weights for determining funds for serving special populations (Latham Sikes, 2021).
To responsibly address inequitable funding, leaders across the South must make sure that they invest in schools by returning funds that were cut during the pandemic and by considering the impact of short-term investments on the long-term needs of education systems. In particular, leaders should factor in how short-term investments, like teacher pay raises and targeted student supports benefit schools, and how policies with long-term consequences, like tax cuts, may be to their detriment (Baker & DiCarlo, 2020).
Excellent Education for Emergent Bilingual Students
Texas has a longstanding history in establishing bilingual education laws and programs for serving emergent bilingual students (Latham Sikes & Villanueva, 2021). IDRA and our coalition partners made recent strides to build stronger and more equitable policies (García, 2021).
Texas recently passed legislation to create a statewide strategic plan for emergent bilingual student education (SB 560, 87R). The plan contains specific objectives to strengthen bilingual/ESL education, including by increasing the number of certified teachers in this area; informing families about opportunities for students’ bilingualism and multilingualism development; and bolstering data collection, reporting and monitoring procedures for emergent bilingual student education from pre-kindergarten through high school graduation.
IDRA is helping states develop and enact statewide plans for emergent bilingual student educational success, promoting asset-based language, and ensuring that emergent bilingual students have access to education opportunities that put them on a college-ready and college-going path.
Students across the South should have safe and culturally-sustaining school environments that afford them every opportunity for success. Particularly, education leaders should promote policies that affirm students’ right to learn about themselves through accurate history and courses in cultural and ethnic studies, be protected from discrimination based on gender identity or expression, and be able to learn without the threat of harmful disciplinary practices.
Throughout the country, particularly in the South, leaders have enacted policies aimed at censoring what students can learn and what educators can teach. Measures have been introduced and/or passed at the federal level and in state legislatures and school boards in nearly every Southern state (Wilson, 2021). These measures often carry onerous administrative burdens for schools by requiring teachers to post curriculum and lessons plans online for public criticism. The laws also feature harmful penalties for teaching the truth (that is often included in state-set standards), including decreases in state funding and discipline of educators.
Education leaders also face attacks on students based on their gender identity or expression. States across the South passed several measures that prohibit transgender and nonbinary youth from engaging in sports or using restrooms that align with their gender identity. These efforts have been so widespread that the Human Rights Campaign dubbed 2021 the “worst year in recent history for LGBTQ+ state legislative attacks” (Ronan, 2021).
This trend looks as if it will continue. In the first week of 2022, lawmakers in at least seven additional states proposed laws to further limit the rights of transgender and nonbinary youth (Lavietes, 2022). Such policies can violate federal protections against discrimination on the basis of sex (Latham Sikes, Oct. 6, 2021).
As this year proceeds, advocates should be concerned about negative and harmful disciplinary practices used in schools. Several states across the South still allow the use of corporal punishment, despite extensive evidence showing the harmfulness of these practices (Craven, 2021; SPLC, 2019). These practices are particularly distressing as Black students and students with disabilities are the most likely to be struck by educators (Craven, 2021).
Along with long-term physical and mental health impacts of the pandemic, these policies continue to exacerbate the enduring negative effects of exclusionary discipline policies (Solís, 2021) and referrals to law enforcement (Wilson, 2020), particularly for students of color.
To create more culturally-sustaining school environments, education leaders across the South should abandon all efforts to censor what students learn, stop marginalizing youth based on their identity and stop subjecting them to harmful disciplinary practices. Instead, they should invest in policies that affirm and sustain all aspects of students’ identities.
College Preparation for All Students to Succeed
All students deserve the educational tools to succeed in college and beyond, no matter what paths they may choose after graduation. College should never be a foreclosed opportunity for students based on their lack of K-12 preparation, information or academic advising.
National reading and math scores of 12th graders in 2019 indicated just over one in three were ready for college (NAEP, 2019). Between 2017 to 2020, the number of high school graduates directly enrolling in college dropped by over seven percentage points in both Texas (from 52% to 44.9%) and Georgia (from 61.5% to 53.9%) (THECB, 2021; State of Georgia, 2020).
Test scores and enrollment rates are important indicators of academic preparedness for college, but many other factors are key. Full college readiness means rigorous academic options in K-12, particularly advanced coursework, from middle through high school; college and career advising; meaningful assessments of student performance; and aligned systems of support around high school to college transitions (Anderson & Fulton, 2015; Bojorquez & Bahena, 2018; Rodríguez, 2021).
Policies that promote college access for all students regardless of their citizenship status are also critical. Texas was the first state to make sure undocumented Texas high school graduates could access public colleges and universities at in-state tuition rates and apply for state financial aid.
Unfortunately, Georgia prohibits undocumented students from enrolling in public colleges and universities at any tuition rate (Higher Ed Immigration Portal, 2021). State DREAM Acts that expand college access and affordability to eligible high school graduates regardless of citizenship status help make postsecondary education equitable for all students who seek it.
The future of Southern education policy matters to the entire country. Policies that exclude or marginalize Black, Latino and LGBTQ+ students excise a costly toll on the country’s path toward racial and educational justice. When leaders instead provide resources and rigor in the classroom, safe and inclusive learning environments, and unbounded opportunities for all students to realize their full potential, they build a better education system and carry the country forward in the march toward justice and a stronger future.
Anderson, L., & Fulton, M. (2015). Multiple Measures for College Readiness. Education Commission of the States.
Baker, B.D., & Di Carlo, M. (April 2020). The Coronavirus Pandemic and K-12 Education Funding. Albert Shanker Institute.
Bojorquez, H., & Bahena, S. (2018). Ready Texas – A Study of the Implementation of HB5 in Texas and Implications for College Readiness. IDRA.
Crain, T.P. (June 1, 2021). A Closer Look at Alabama’s $7.7 Billion Education Budget, Largest in History. Advance Local.
Craven, M. (June 2021). Stopping Harmful Corporal Punishment Policies in Texas. IDRA.
García, A. (June-July 2021). Exciting Advances for Emergent Bilingual Students in Texas. IDRA Newsletter.
State of Georgia. (2020). High School Graduate Outcomes Dashboard, website. Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.
Higher Ed Immigration Portal. (2021). Tuition and Financial Aid Equity for Undocumented Students, Portal to the States, website.
Jackson, C.K. (2020). Does School Spending Matter? The New Literature on an Old Question. In L. Tach, R. Dunifon, & D.L. Miller (Eds.), Confronting Inequality: How Policies and Practices Shape Children’s Opportunities (pp. 165–186). American Psychological Association.
Latham Sikes, C. (2021). Fair Funding for Strong Public School Education – IDRA Texas Priority Brief. IDRA.
Latham Sikes, C. (October 6, 2021). HB 25 Harms Transgender Students by Prohibiting their Participation in Team Sports Aligned with their Gender Identity – IDRA Testimony against House Bill 25, before the Texas House Select Committee on Constitutional Rights & Remedies. IDRA.
Latham Sikes, C., & Villanueva, C. (2021). Creating a More Bilingual Texas – A Closer Look at Bilingual Education in the Lone Star State. IDRA and Every Texan.
Lavietes, M. (January 7, 2022). At Least 7 States proposed Anti-trans Bills in First Week of 2022. NBC News.
NAEP. (2019). Nation’s Report Card: Reading, 12th grade. National Assessment of Educational Progress.
NCES. (2018). Statistics of State School Systems, 1969-70; Revenues and Expenditures for Public Elementary and Secondary Education, 1979-80; and Common Core of Data (CCD), “National Public Education Financial Survey,” 1989-90 through 2017-18. U.S. Department of Education.
Rodríguez, C. (October 2021). Texas is Not Financing College Readiness – Wealth and Inequities Highlighted by the Civil Rights Data Collection. IDRA.
Ronan, W. (May 7, 2021). 2021 Officially Becomes Worst year in Recent History for LGBTQ State Legislative Attacks as Unprecedented Number of States Enact Record-Shattering Number of Anti-LGBTQ Measures into Law, press release. Human Rights Campaign.
Solís, L. (September 2021). School Districts with Higher Rates of Suspension Graduate Fewer Students – New IDRA Analysis Examines Texas Data. IDRA Newsletter.
SPLC. (2019). The Striking Outlier: The Persistent, Painful, and Problematic Practice of Corporal Punishment in Schools. Southern Poverty Law Center.
THECB. (July 2021). 60X30TX Progress Report. Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
U.S. Census Bureau. (2019a). ACS 5-year Estimates, S1401 Table: School Enrollment.
U.S. Census Bureau. (2019b). ACS 1-year Estimates, S0201 Table: Selected Population Profile in the United States.
Wilson, T. (February 2020). At What Cost? A Review of School Police Funding and Accountability Across the U.S. South. IDRA Newsletter.
Wilson, T. (September 2, 2021). School Censorship Policies Sweep Through the South. Knowledge is Power.
Terrence Wilson, J.D., is IDRA’s regional policy and community engagement director. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Chloe Latham Sikes, Ph.D., is IDRA’s deputy director of policy. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at email@example.com.
[©2022, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 2022 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]