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The socialist way to talk about school funding ‘inequality’

I can’t stop talking about Ester Cyna’s award-winning essay on school finance in North Carolina over the long 20th century. The history is rigorous and the focus on rural districts unique, but Cyna makes a move that few others in the motley arena of school finance research make.

She rejects the characterization of school finance resource distribution as inequality. Instead, she calls the situation kleptocratic. Rather than a technical system that just so happens to be allocating resources non-optimally, Cyna says that this distribution–which favors whites across class lines, but also follows a class struggle dynamic–is an intentional theft of one group’s resources by another.

What’s so important about this move is that it puts the whole problem of ‘school funding inequality’ in a different light. Rather than a framework that sees school funding as a mechanical, functionalist, and technocratic problem, Cyna’s intervention is to see school funding through the lens of dominance, social-political terrain, and struggle.

As far as I can tell, it’s a paradigm shift in thinking about school funding. The leading lights of progressive school funding research are only now discovering the racialized aspect of it and accounts of school funding from a critical, marxist, or socialist perspective are only slowly coming out.

Cyna takes an historical approach, detailing hard-to-understand practices that result in white ruling class (and sometimes working class) groups pilfering school district grant funding, corresponding property value enhancement, and school board political power from which Black middle and working class communities could have benefitted. She goes from 1908 to 2008.

Though her argument is focused on providing sufficient historical evidence from North Carolina to prove the point, her project clears a space to talk about the distribution of resources in education from a socialist perspective. With all my writing about the problem of inequality, I didn’t realize that even the word ‘inequality’ isn’t right for socialists to use in this case.

So I’ve been thinking about what Cyna’s paradigm shift means for us today, both in discourse about education and contemporary finance practices. Here are some initial thoughts just on the theory side of things.


First of all, Cyna’s move here shows us that the problem at hand isn’t school funding inequality. The term ‘inequality’ is an ideological framing of the problem. Again, calling the situtation inequality is to use a mechanistic and functionalist framework: there’s a system that just so happens to be badly distributing resources. All we have to do is trust technocrats to fix that system and it’ll be okay.

Cyna’s kleptocracy view challenges that ideological presumption. (It’s a a counter-interpellation.) What we’re talking about here is actually school funding distribution. How do the material conditions of education get made and sent around? Where do these resources come from and how do they get to schools? That’s a distribution problem.

The technocratic approach to this school funding distribution problem is to say it’s a problem of inequality. But a socialist knows this isn’t the way to go. We need a class struggle approach. So how would a class struggle approach characterize school funding distribution? What would a socialist say about this situation?


I’ve been making my way through the literature on racial capitalism. The term is trending right now and I’ve had a mini-project to see about the differences between it as a framework and the structuralist tradition of Althusser and Stuart Hall. I’m also interested in what school funding looks like through that lens. Cyna’s thinking is essential here, though she uses the word ‘kleptocracy’. What’s helpful about that word is that it invites different theorizations without making a theoretical claim yet.

The question is how to theorize Cyna’s kleptocracy claim about school funding distribution using a racial capitalism lens.

So far, Charisse Burden-Stelly’s thinking about modern racial capitalism has resonated with me because she grounds her approach to racial capitalism in the work of black women communist organizers in the United States. A concept in this literature that she focuses on (like in this podcast), and which Robinson also mentions, is superexploitation.

Remember that exploitation is capitalism’s noble scam and the beating heart of Marx’s critique of it. Working people do the stuff that makes value possible. Without our labor, capitalists can’t buy and sell, so the capitalists pay us money to do it. Getting paid is better–in some cases–than being a serf or a slave, but Marx says hold on. Almost by definition, what we get paid has to be less than what our work is worth. Otherwise, why would a capitalist pay us to do it? There has to be something in it for them. They have to make some profit. So they take some of what we make. You know when people say “they don’t pay me enough for this?” That’s always true, by definition, in capitalism.

That’s exploitation: I do stuff that’s worth a certain amount, but I don’t take home all of what I create. Capitalists take it.

Exploitation happens at work. But what Marx meant by work, as a number of traditions have pointed out, is limited. It doesn’t include work that happens outside of contracted wage (like carework). And it doesn’t capture the racialized dynamic of either kind of work. Social reproduction theorists focus on the carework part and racial capitalism theorists focus on the second part.

Superexploitation is a term that black communists used to talk about the racial dynamic of exploitation in the United States. Burden-Stelly says it’s better to use this term than oppression or exploitation, since it captures how racialized exploitation goes beyond exploitation but is still a kind of exploitation. She describes it as resulting from the “conjuncture of white supremacy, racialization, and the ‘badge of slavery’, which exacerbates the conditions of exploitation to which the white working classes are subjected.”

She follows Harry Haywood, who wrote that superexploitation “constitutes a combination of direct exploitation, outright robbery, physical violence, legal coercion, and perpetual indebtedness…stifling ‘the free economic and cultural development’ of the Black masses ‘through racist persecution as a basic condition for maintaining’ virtual enslavement.”


But superexploitation might not work for school funding distribution. School funding isn’t created or distributed in the workplace. Nor is there a form of reproductive work that Black people are doing explicitly to generate value, which capitalists can superexploit. It’s true that whites accumulated wealth by taking from Blacks when it came to school funding. But did they exploit it? If we’re being careful, not really.

Instead, Nancy Fraser (who usually has solid takes) proposes that we use the term expropriation to talk about racialized accumulation beyond the traditional workplace. Pardon the long quote but I promise it’s worth it:

Distinct from Marxian exploitation, but equally integral to capitalist development, expropriation is accumulation by other means. Dispensing with the contractual relation through which capital purchases “labor power” in exchange for wages, expropriation works by confiscating capacities and resources and conscripting them into capital’s circuits of self-expansion. The confiscation may be blatant and violent, as in New World slavery—or it may be veiled by a cloak of commerce, as in the predatory loans and debt foreclosures of the present era. The expropriated subjects may be rural or indigenous communities in the capitalist periphery—or they may be members of subject or subordinated groups in the capitalist core. They may end up as exploited proletarians, if they’re lucky—or, if not, as paupers, slum dwellers, sharecroppers, “natives,” or slaves, subjects of ongoing expropriation outside the wage nexus. The confiscated assets may be labor, land, animals, tools, mineral or energy deposits—but also human beings, their sexual and reproductive capacities, their children and bodily organs. The conscription of these assets into capital’s circuits may be direct, involving immediate conversion into value—as, again, in slavery; or it may be mediated and indirect, as in the unwaged labor of family members in semi-proletarianized households. What is essential, however, is that the commandeered capacities get incorporated into the value-expanding process that defines capital. Simple theft is not enough. Unlike the sort of pillaging that long predated the rise of capitalism, expropriation in the sense I intend here is confiscation-cum-conscription-into-accumulation.

I think kleptocratic school funding practices like those Cyna describes fit this description. So, at least for now, I’d propose we use this concept of expropriation.

The one issue is that just using the term expropriation misses out on the chief benefit of racial capitalism as a framework: the rhetorical pride of place given to the term ‘racial’. Is Fraser’s account open to the criticism that–despite its adequate concept–the phraseology, its potential as a slogan for organizing, is not right for the moment? While this may be true of superexploitation as well, at least the prefix ‘super’ has a solid history in organizing (per Burden-Stelly) and makes space for enhanced forms of an otherwise deracialized marxist concept of exploitation.

I’d propose socialists use ‘superexpropriation’ to talk about school funding distribution in the United States. The concept builds on Cyna’s kleptocracy idea and theorizes school funding in a class struggle framework.

School Lunch Debt and the Ruling Class

Parents in Wyoming Valley School District in Pennsylvania were terrified and angry. The district sent a letter threatening to send their children to foster care. Why? Students in the district’s schools had increasing school lunch debt.

School lunch debt, believe it or not, is a real thing. It’s when students can’t pay for lunch and the school has to spot them. Typically, parents have to put money into accounts for their students, who swipe cards or give their ID numbers when getting the food in the cafeteria. If a student’s account is empty, then they technically can’t afford the meal. But the district is obligated to feed them. It’s a loss for everyone. Districts lose money and students get shamed. A blog post on this phenomenon of lunch shaming tells more harrowing anecdotes:

Imagine a high school cafeteria in which a student’s meal is taken away and thrown in the trash in front of his peers because his lunch account had an outstanding balance of $4.95. In another school, a student’s breakfast was thrown away due to a 30-cent debt. And one school denied a child breakfast even though the child’s mother told the school over the phone that she was on her way there to pay for it.

One case that made national news was in Warwick, Rhode Island. The district said students with lunch debt would only get a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch. After pressure campaigns against this lunch shaming, they reversed that policy.

How does school lunch debt work structurally? What are the apparatuses involved in this situation?

Ruling class hates a free lunch

Let’s start from the ground up. How does school food finance work?

Most school districts have a food service department that manages meals. There are two ways this department can approach it’s work: in-house or outsourced. No matter which way you slice it, this is hard to do (the food puns in this literature are to die for). The School Superintendents Association, in a very thorough summary of the outsourcing debate, summarizes it this way:

operating a school district food service department is anything but simple. Even in the smallest districts, food service operations are businesses that must comply with many more rules than those in the private sector. School food service departments must operate as nonprofits, yet they need to make enough money to be self-sufficient. There are federal nutritional guidelines to follow, and the meals have to be attractive to hard-to-please consumers who are inclined to complain about “mystery meat.”

It’s a tough job. The districts also set school food prices. These meals are way cheaper than lunches that you or I might get at our workplaces. The School Nutrition Association, which tracks this kind of information, found the following average prices across K-12 levels.

I’d love to know how these prices get calculated. That’s yet another post. The more general question is: why aren’t school meals free? Wouldn’t that solve the problem?

Like most public programs, government funding for school meals has been slashed repeatedly. Laws have made it easier for private firms to provide school food too. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear that over the last ten years school food service has become more and more privatized, with departments opting to contract with big corporations to handle their food. I can’t find solid numbers on this score, but according to a CDC report from 2000 private companies were doing this work in 17% of US schools. That was twenty years ago, and the laws have only made it easier to go to the private sector for everything. There’s a whole other post in tracing this history, which Jennifer E. Gaddis does well.

So basically, the ruling class doesn’t want school meals to be free. They want them to be subject to capitalism like everything else. That’s why there’s school lunch debt.

But it’s not that simple, like usual. There are government programs that reimburse schools for their food service costs, particularly schools that serve poorer communities. Like everything else in the Reaganite fever-dream we’ve been living in for forty years, these programs are insufficiently funded, decentralized, and not conducive to helping people.

The US Department of Agriculture manages the National School Lunch Program, whose Community Eligibility Provision provides reimbursement for schools and districts serving a certain proportion of poor students, as defined by their families’ participation in programs like SNAP or TANF. The program serves about 30 million kids nationwide.

But you have to be super poor to get these. The School Nutrition Association says that children from families with incomes at or below 130% of the poverty level are eligible for free meals, according to the School Nutrition Association. Meanwhile, those with incomes between 130% and 185% can receive reduced-price meals. SNA indicates that 130% of the poverty level is a household income of $34,060 for a family of four and 185% is $48,470 for a family of four. Also, schools and districts have to formally register students for these programs, which requires a certification process to prove that they need it, which can sometimes go awry or not work.

Out to lunch

When it comes to lunch debt, these regulations are, well, out to lunch. The USDA makes school meal policy, which the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) administers. And right now, the law of the land is that districts can make their own policies to address school lunch debt. The legal scholar Ilana Linder calls this a “hands-off” and “decentralized” approach to the problem.

The USDA says it is ‘sensitive’ to the issue of unpaid meal charges and provides guidance, reports, and talking points for districts to deal with the problem, including how to prevent lunch shaming. They say they encourage districts to follow this guidance. This is the picture they use for the page:

A little forced, I’d say.

And hypocritical. Schools are on the hook for food costs, like I said, and the budget item is quite different than other expenses. For example, get this: according to Anique Aburuad,

the USDA does not allow schools to use federal funds to directly pay off meal debt, but it does allow such funds to be used to contract a for-profit agency to collect the debt. In a 2014 study, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service reported that 6% of schools sent unpaid bills to collection agencies. These numbers may have risen as a result of the USDA’s 2017 requirement for schools to collect unpaid lunch debt.

So districts can use federal money to pay private companies to handle their food service, but they can’t use the same money to pay off the debt parents accrue when they can’t afford food. Some districts even end up sending these debts to collections agencies. Gross.

So what’s to be done?

Lots of policies have targeted lunch shaming, like laws in New Mexico and California. But these are treatments of a symptom rather than the disease: poverty and the inability to pay for food. People should be able to afford food for their kids. Probably the best way to address this would be to transfer control of the means of food production to cooperatives of working class people, who would then allocate grants and credit and resources to schools according to democratic procedures.

That’s a tall order, for sure. As we work towards that revolutionary policy solution, what kind of reforms might we pursue? The problem at hand is that schools don’t have enough money to pay for food. What can be done about that?

Like Arundhati Roy wrote last year, the pandemic is a portal. At the start of the shutdowns, the federal government passed a law that covered all student meal costs independent of students’ abillity to pay. The USDA extended this policy through Spring 2022. Not surprisingly, Bernie Sanders and Ilhan Omar want to make this permanent policy. These bills look good. At the state level, Texas might cancel the debt and North Dakota might pass a free lunch bill.

But if state apparatuses aren’t your thing, maybe you’re up for mutual aid organizing. School lunch debt is a great issue to take up.

A mom in Greenville, NC decided to donate leftover lunch money to her kids’ high school. Philando Castile was beloved in his community for paying off students’ school lunch debt. Organizers in North Dakota have pushed these efforts further, doing organized school lunch debt buys and winning policy demands that make it illegal to send the debt to collection agencies.

Fiscal Mutualism and the PASSHE Crisis

Michael Glass and Sean Vanatta, in their history of 1940s municipal finance in the New York suburbs, coined the term fiscal mutualism. This is a cool idea so it’s good to know about generally, but I’ve been wondering whether it could be used as a strategy to address contemporary problems in education finance.

Specifically, I’m thinking about the woeful situation of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE).

PASSHE-ing the buck

PASSHE is facing a serious threat right now. Its Board of Governors just voted 17-2 to take the next step in a process of consolidating the system’s 14 universities into 10. This could have disastrous consequences for the working class communities of central and western Pennsylvania that rely on these universities for employment, training, and community.

The Chancellor Dan Greenstein, a neoliberal technocrat faced with a know-nothing/spend-nothing Republican state legislature, only wants to cut. I’ve written about his lack of imagination when it comes to revenue solutions before. Now he’s making good on that lack of imagination.

My union, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculty (APSCUF) is leading the charge against the consolidation. But at a recent rally, a reporter asked what strategies the union would recommend for institutions whose enrollments aren’t growing and have to deal with debt service and other costs they can’t meet.

Of course it’s true that thinking about enrollments as ‘having gone down’ doesn’t take the long view (we’re actually doing well if you look starting from 2000), doesn’t consider the cuts made during and after the Great Recession, and doesn’t factor in the neglectful approach to state spending during the recovery. Not to mention the pandemic crisis.

And of course the union is correct to say this is a revenue problem and that we need to increase spending. But the reporter is right: what plans do we have to actually increase that revenue? (Sanders’s College for All plan is one possible direction, but waiting for the federal government can be like waiting for Godot.)

That’s where fiscal mutualism comes in.

Wicked PSERS

Fiscal mutualism, for Glass and Vanatta, is when a state pension fund invests in state and local governments rather than the stock market. Instead of trying to get the biggest short-term yield on pensioner contributions by investing in stocks, a fiscal-mutualist approach puts a pension’s resources towards public infrastructure.

A pension fund is just a big pool of money that people pay into to receive financial support at the end of their careers. People who run pensions are responsible for managing that huge pile of money so it best serves the people contributing to it. Before the 1950s, it was standard practice to assume that ‘best serving pensioners’ meant investing in public infrastructure. That all changed though, and Glass and Vanatta tell the story well.

History has thing to teach us now, and maybe fiscal mutualism is one of those lessons. My proposal is this: what if PASSHE went to the Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS) and asked for a little fiscal mutualism? What would that look like?

Some details about PSERS: about 250,000 teachers pay into the $62 billion fund, managed by a staff and overseen by a 15-member board of directors.

PSERS could buy a bond from PASSHE to (i) refund current debt service and (ii) cover costs of struggling universities. The interest rate on this loan could potentially be lower than what PASSHE is paying now for its debt service.

What would be in it for PSERS? Well, they have a bit of a public relations nightmare going on right now. They’re being investigated for fraud.

The fraud allegation is that they lied about reaching their 6.36% growth target, claiming that they got to 6.38% in 2020. There’s tension between the staff and the board of directors around this as the FBI investigates. They recently voted to raise the rates on teachers, meaning that they at least made a mistake and at worst lied about it.

What better to redeem them in the eyes of the public than investing in public higher education? And if PSERS doesn’t want to, as pension reporter Joe DiStefano recommends, we can always ask another pension like TIAA-CREF or SERS.