No Funds, No Future: How Can School Districts Become More Equitable In the Bay Area?

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The Problem/Why It Matters

You know the high school in John Cusack’s Say Anything? With its castle-like walls and skyscraper heights? With tall oak trees to study under and teachers that really care? That school is just “movie magic” for most students, especially where I’m from. So few kids, or their parents, in the Bay Area get to attend well-funded public schools. For example, Country Costa County (in California, USA), which includes the high-income cities of Orinda and Lafayette and the working-class cities of Richmond and Antioch, divides educational funding based on school districts. The school funding comes from taxpayer’s dollars. So, it comes as no surprise that the low-income and high-income cities are in separate districts. This puts working-class families at a huge disadvantage; they usually cannot afford to send their kids to private school, and their only free option is a sorely under-funded public school. I’ll delve into a few of the many reasons why education, especially early childhood education, can be life-changing for anyone’s physical, emotional, and mental health in a second, but I’ll start with this: Education is an equalizer, and there needs to be equitable access to it.

Until Education Is Equitable, Meritocracy Is A Myth

This Crash Course video on the right gives a good summary of the main issues with public schools in the US: Lack of resources and de facto school segregation. (De facto, in terms of the law, means ‘an effect that is true, but not legally sanctioned’ (1).). Schools need money to pay for good, qualified teachers, up-to-date textbooks, enrichment programs, and most public schools are funded by their city’s property tax. High-income neighborhoods with high-priced houses have big budgets for schools in their district. Low-income neighborhoods with lower-priced houses don’t have nearly that same budget. Since kids go to school in their district, their family’s income plays a huge role in the quality of their education. That brings us to the intersection of race and class in the school system: Redlining.


Mapping Inequality Project, University of Richmond

To use the National Community Reinvestment Coalition’s (NCRC) definition of redlining, it is “is the practice of denying borrowers access to credit based on the location of properties in minority or economically disadvantaged neighborhoods” (3). And even though redlining was banned in the 1968 Fair Housing Act, three in four “formerly” redlined neighborhoods were still struggling economically in 2018 (4). Jim Crow still has a firm grasp on the future of students of color. Only 53 years have passed since that housing act. That is nowhere near enough time to escape the clutches of intergenerational poverty that so many kids of color are born into.

As seen in the infographic below, a quality education makes it far more likely for students to attend college because of higher test scores, unlocking higher-paying jobs for them in the future (3).

Essentially, a good education is the key to social mobility. School is the key to the American Dream.

My Game Theory Model

Political change is slow, I get that. It’s not the perfect first step forward, but as an example of possible change, I decided to model the low-income and high-income residents of Contra Costa County voting on a bill to replace their current 16 school districts for grades K-12 with 3 school districts (1 for elementary school, 1 for middle school, 1 for high school) and voting on a bill to increase state/county-wide property taxes (and therefore, school funding). If the district bill passed, a lottery would be used to determine which school children go to (like the city of Berkeley, California does). If the property tax increase passed, residents would pay 5% on their property tax than there were already paying (aka, paying 105% of their current property tax. If their house was taxed 10% of its value, its residents wouldn’t then pay 15%, but 10.5%). The two players are the high-income/non-low-income (one-person salary above $62,750/household income above $89,600) and low-income (one-person salary below $62,750/household income below $89,600) residents (6). Low to very-low-income residents make up 49% of Contra Costa and median to high-income residents make up 51% (7). I will model this problem in a matrix form and represent the payoff in utilities. I’m using utilities because money and ‘happiness’ (about residents’ children’s education) factors into each player’s decision. Utility, in game theory, is a numeric value that represents the value of a payoff to a player, considering subjective and objective factors. This utility value is one way game theorists attempt to express emotional and unquantifiable influences on decision-making. In this scenario, both prejudices against working-class families and altruism would likely factor into players’ strategies, so it is fair to say that our players won’t be acting “rationally.”

Setting It Up

KEY:

Players: Medium to high-income voters (MHI), Low-income voters (LI)

Strategies: Yes on school bill (YS), No on school bill (NS), AND Yes on property tax increase (YP), & No on property tax increase (NP)

Outcomes Where School Bill Passes (represented as [LI, MHI]): [YSYP, YSYP], [YSNP, YSYP], [NSYP, YSYP], [NSNP, YSYP], [YSYP, YSNP], [YSNP, YSNP], [NSYP, YSNP], [NSNP, YSNP]

Outcomes Where School Bill Doesn’t Pass: [YSYP, NSYP], [YSNP, NSYP], [NSYP, NSYP], [NSNP, NSYP], [YSYP, NSNP], [YSNP, NSNP], [NSYP, NSNP], [NSNP, NSNP]

Outcomes Where Property Tax Hike Passes: [YSYP, YSYP], [YSNP, YSYP], [NSYP, YSYP], [NSNP, YSYP], [YSYP, NSYP], [YSNP, NSYP], [NSYP, NSYP], [NSNP, NSYP]

Outcomes Where Property Tax Hike Doesn’t Pass: [YSYP, YSNP], [YSNP, YSNP], [NSYP, YSNP], [NSNP, YSNP], [YSYP, NSNP], [YSNP, NSNP], [NSYP, NSNP], [NSNP, NSNP]

Medium to high-income voters (MHI) Utility Values (1-20 U):

Outcomes Where School Bill & Property Hike Don’t Pass: 19 U

  • No change in school, commute, or increase in taxes.
  • Some voters may be upset that a bill to make schools more equitable failed.

Outcomes Where School Bill & Property Hike Pass: 3 U

  • Unhappy to send kids to a school with fewer funds. The property tax would increase funding, but not by enough. Some voters may dislike tax increase.
  • Upset about the possible commute to a school on the other side of the county.
  • Some voters may be happy that schooling is more equitable.

Outcomes Where School Bill Passes & Property Hike Doesn’t: 2 U

  • Unhappy to send kids to a school with fewer funds. No increase in funds through property tax to combat this. Some voters may be happy about there being no tax increase.
  • Upset about the possible commute to a school on the other side of the county.
  • Some voters may be happy that schooling is more equitable.

Outcomes Where School Bill Doesn’t Pass & Property Hike Does: 1 U

  • No change in school or commute.
  • Some voters may dislike tax increase, and find it unnecessary since their schools are already well-funded.
  • Some voters may be upset that a bill to make schools more equitable failed.

Low-income voters (LI) Utility Values (1-20 U):

Outcomes Where School Bill Passes & Property Hike Doesn’t: 16 U

  • Happy to send kids to schools with more funds, and without a tax increase, it wouldn’t cost any more, so many voters may be happy with this.
  • Upset about the possible commute to a school on the other side of the county. Working-class jobs/working multiple jobs may might it difficult to bring kids to school.
  • Many voters may be happy that schooling is more equitable.

Outcomes Where School Bill & Property Hike Pass: 13 U

  • Happy to send kids to schools with more funds. The property tax would increase funding, which would be a plus, but some voters may not be able to afford higher taxes. 
  • Upset about the possible commute to a school on the other side of the county. Working-class jobs/working multiple jobs may might it difficult to bring kids to school.
  • Many voters may be happy that schooling is more equitable.

Outcomes Where School Bill & Property Hike Don’t Pass: 2 U

  • No change in school, commute, or increase in taxes. Some voters may be relieved that the tax increase didn’t pass because they were already struggling financially.
  • Many voters may be upset that a bill to make schools more equitable failed.

Outcomes Where School Bill Doesn’t Pass & Property Hike Does: 1 U

  • No change in school or commute.
  • Some voters may dislike tax increase, and find it a huge financial stressor, although their schools would get slightly more money. Not enough to make a huge impact.
  • Many voters may be upset that a bill to make schools more equitable failed.

The Matrix Model

The Problem “Solved”

In your average “solvable” matrix problem, both HMI and LI would play YSNP. However, understanding humans like to strategize can help us out here. HMI makes up 51% of the vote, so, if they voted similarly, they would decide the outcome. If HMI understands their power and understands that LI will likely vote YSNP (49% of the vote), and more than 2% of HMI will also vote at least YS, then HMI understands YS will likely happen (the school bill will likely pass). So, between YSNP and YSYP, HMI prefers YSYP, since they receive a payoff of 3 U instead of 2 U from YSNP. Since HMI might understand that LI could get the school bill to pass, they can guarantee that their preferred outcome will happen: the property tax will increase as well. Therefore, we can conclude that the optimal strategy for LI is YSNP, and for HMI it is YSYP.

The Outcome

Optimal Strategies: LI: YSNP, HMI: YSYP

Predicted Outcome: [YSNP, YSYP] = School bill & property tax pass

Predicted Payoff: [13, 3]

 

 

Where Does This Leave US?:

Of course, this change is idealistic at best. While I can’t say for sure how the vote would turn out in real life, I suspect that getting the bill to a vote would be the hardest part. Check out this video for more reasons why fixing school inequity has been a slow process.

 

 

 

 

For Now:

Well, as I’ve emphasized throughout this page, EDUCATION IS KEY. Educate yourself beyond a surface level on how and why school inequity exists and the proposed solutions already out there as well.

  • Some Americans are opposed to spending more money on education, so here’s a TedTalk that addresses how to “Fix the school system without any more money.”
  • Keep yourself updated on your/your child’s school district and how they spend their money. What programs need more funding? What resources are lacking?
  • Volunteer! Volunteer to teach children to read or be a volunteer tutor, so you can be a free resource for kids to learn to love learning.
  • Go to town halls and school board meetings and pay attention to politicians’ stance on school funding + school districts! Do you know who is on your district’s school board? Are there any bills coming up in the next local election addressing these issues?

Thank you for reading. I hope you love to learn and that you go out and help other students love to learn as well.

Comments? Questions?

Feel free to critique or compliment!

  1. What could I have improved about this model?
  2. Did I leave out any influences on LI and/or HMI’s decision-making?
  3. Are there actionable items I left out?
  4. Do you have any resources about this issue you’d like to share?

REFERENCES

Whoops! Did WordPress leave something out? Find a complete version of my project here.
2 Comments

2 comments

  1. Bess, this is a fabulous project! Well-written so that it caught my attention from the start, and approaching a solution by gaming out choices is something I’d never seen before. Bravo!

    1. Thank you so much, Dr. Bradley. I appreciate you taking the time to read this! 🙂

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