If you want to explain today’s problems, Ericka Weathers recommends looking to the past: “History helps us make sense of findings and frame questions.”
Weathers, an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education’s Policy, Organizations, Leadership and Systems Division, studies how policies that are supposed to be race-neutral, like school funding formulas, truancy policy, or special education, end up failing marginalized groups. She hopes that, armed with a better understanding of the results of past policies, our current decisions can lead to a better future for everyone.
Local tax revenues support most public schools, meaning poorer districts often need more funding to support students’ needs. The more a school can invest in its students, the better the outcome. State and federal funds are supposed to even the playing field by filling in funding gaps for poorer schools, regardless of the racial makeup of the students. But that is not what happens. Weathers’ research shows, for example, that the more racially segregated a school district is, the more likely it is to deviate from expected investments. School districts that are majority Black and Latinx receive less money per student than districts where white students make up the majority.
Using U.S. Department of Education data, Weathers tracked school revenues and the racial makeup of different school districts. In a 2021 study, she and her Stanford colleague Victoria Sosina showed that for 15 years starting in 1999, districts that became Blacker and more Latinx received less funding per student than income-matched majority white schools. She is now studying what might have caused those disparities, including possibly school funding formulas.
“Even after we control for a number of characteristics that are thought to be associated with school funding formulas, like poverty, we still find this relationship.”
She thinks that policies designed to address historic racial inequities can help. Congress cited her research to justify provisions for racial equity in the “Strength in Diversity Act” now working its way through Capitol Hill.
Another big problem impacting communities of color is the school-to-prison pipeline. “There’s a lot of research that shows a relationship between exclusionary discipline—suspensions and expulsions—and the school-to-prison pipeline,” Weathers says. Building on that, she is studying truancy (unexcused absence) policy. “Truancy policies are often punitive and criminalize student behavior in much the same way as discipline policies.”
Read more at Penn GSE.