Any debate about fairness in school funding has to start with clear data, but it turns out that data can be very hard to find. Most people understand the inequity of school districts in wealthier areas having more money than those in less affluent communities. Addressing these disparities — across school districts — is important; but just as important, and less understood, is the unfair distribution of resources within school districts.
Part of the difficulty in tackling these in-district disparities is that — outside of a few spare calculations from nonprofits and the federal Education Department — parents, local advocates and even school board members are often in the dark about how spending breaks down across their local schools.
The Center for American Progress conducted a rare study of this issue and found that at least 4.5 million students from low-income backgrounds are in schools that receive roughly $1,200 less per child each year than wealthier schools in the very same district.
In a single school, this shortfall can be the difference between adding 12 counselors, granting thousands of dollars in bonuses for dozens of teachers who transfer into hard-to-staff subjects and offering high quality art, music and extracurricular programming — or adding nothing at all. And these baseline funding numbers do not even include major advantages affluent schools have through well-funded P.T.A.s, parental social capital and connections with colleges and universities.
Far too often, districts use a one-size-fits-all approach, instead of spending according to student need. So higher-need schools must rely on roughly the same funding as lower-need schools in the tonier parts of the same district.
This approach to budgeting contradicts research and common sense: Studies from both Rutgers University and Syracuse University have indicated that schools with a high percentage of students from low-income households need two to three times more money than other schools to address those students’ greater challenges: limited homework time due to work and babysitting responsibilities; lack of internet access and tutoring; unmet health or vision needs; and unsafe or unstable housing, to name a few.
Good news is coming this year, as a new federal reporting requirement, signed into law late in the Obama administration, comes into effect, mandating all states to publicly report how much each school spends per pupil. The idea, which gained conservative support, was to make these often murky budgeting decisions transparent and prompt local conversations about how school boards and superintendents can better allocate resources.
States are required to report this data by this summer. Only about half of them have released the reports so far. In most of those states, school boards and superintendents aren’t yet feeling any pressure to make changes, and the data sets aren’t prompting many local news stories. That’s not because people don’t care. It’s because the state education departments that create the funding reports aren’t presenting these troubling patterns in a legible way.
Just finding these reports, many of which have been buried several clicks inside a state’s website, is challenging. As one local reporter in Alabama said, “comparing schools using the 1,300-plus-page document the state department posted is difficult.” It’s not unlike trying to digest a balance sheet for a Fortune 500 company.
There are a few state websites adorned with the bells and whistles of appealing graphics. But these visuals still aren’t answering the basic, critical question about in-district school funding in relation to student body needs.
We are in the midst of a major missed opportunity. All 50 states — particularly the progressive ones that have talked a big game about recommitting to public schools — should think of this as more than a compliance exercise: It’s an opportunity to prompt new, meaningful debates about educational equity.
Unfortunately, only one of the states reporting so far — Illinois — is actually harnessing that potential. Its education department has reported in-district spending that makes comparing funding in higher-need schools versus funding in lower-need schools relatively easy.
Take, for example, School District U-46 in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. In this district, where only 17 percent of the students from low-income families are proficient or above on state tests (compared with 45 percent of the students not from low-income families), you might expect that additional dollars are targeted toward the schools populated by those students from low-income families. Instead, the new government data shows schools in U-46 receive roughly the same range of funds regardless of how many students are living in poverty.
This flat approach is better than many districts’ — at least it isn’t dedicating less money to its highest-poverty schools. And U-46 is underfunded as a district itself: It’s harder to spend equitably when you don’t have enough to go around in the first place. Still, if students living in poverty are less than half as likely to be proficient in reading and math, then it seems clear that local leaders should be committing substantially more resources to schools with 90 percent low-income students than those with 20 percent.
Many well-intentioned school board members and district leaders believe that they already allocate resources according to student need. For example, in a district that provides one teacher for every 25 elementary school students, it’s not uncommon to count students from low-income families or English learners as, say, 1.2 students.
The resulting perception is that higher-need schools are indeed getting much more funding. But high-need schools often rely on a revolving crew of underpaid, novice teachers still learning their craft, and salaries are directly linked to experience. So although a given high-need school might get a few additional staff positions (as a result of the 1.2 calculation), high-poverty schools still often end up spending roughly the same or less than affluent schools because their inexperienced teachers get lower pay
But at least Illinois makes it possible to see such on-the-ground realities. The rest of the states can follow Illinois’s lead and provide a clear look into funding patterns within districts. Then, when a district’s spending distribution is shown to be flat, the district should consider ditching the one-size-fits-all approach and replacing it with a progressive spending plan that allocates resources according to student need.
District leaders might also consider supporting mentoring or “residency” programs for new teachers, creating additional paid planning time, or paying strong teachers more to work in high-need schools and to coach new instructors there.
Arguments over the precise solutions in kindergarten-through-12th-grade education are rightfully endless. But who can argue against knowing as much as we can about the realities on the ground?
Cities and towns should be able to use this new data to clearly see if their values are reflected in their school districts’ budgetary priorities. If not, conversations about how to best help all children in the community can reset — with the facts — and begin anew.
Ary Amerikaner is a vice president at the Education Trust. She was a deputy assistant secretary in the Education Department in the Obama administration.
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