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Is School Funding Fair? A Roundtable Debate

Five experts on the connection between school funding and equity

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On both the state and national levels, controversies over school funding have loomed large in conversations about the future of K-12 education. In addition to several recent high-stakes showdowns between governors and legislatures over school funding and a rash of state-level lawsuits aimed at funding formulas, the debate over what the Every Student Succeeds Act says about the use of Title I funding aimed at disadvantaged students has raged since the law’s inception. With ESSA going into full effect this fall, school funding debates will undoubtedly garner even more attention. Meanwhile, stark disparities remain in how state funding formulas serve (or, in some cases, arguably underserve) their poorest districts.

What do all these conversations end up meaning for students? Is the United States on the right track in how the country approaches funding education? Five education policy experts and practitioners weigh in.


Public School Funding a National Disgrace

By David G. Sciarra

More than 60 years since Brown v. Board of Education, public school funding continues to be unfair and inequitable in most states, shortchanging the nation’s 50 million public school students.

—Getty

Unlike in many other nations, public education in the United States is a state and local matter. State and local funding accounts for approximately 90 percent of all education funding in public schools. But unfair school funding remains entrenched in many states, impeding efforts to improve outcomes for students, especially poor children, English-language learners, and students with disabilities.

The deplorable condition of state public school finance is laid bare in the “National Report Card, Is School Funding Fair?” released early this year by my organization, the Education Law Center. The report analyzes both the level of funding for all students in each state and whether funding increases in districts with high enrollments of poor students.

Here are some key takeaways from the “National Report Card”:

• A wide gulf remains in how much states invest in public education, ranging from $18,165 per pupil in New York to a low of $5,838 in Idaho, when adjusted for regional differences. Most states also fail to allocate more funding to high-poverty districts.

• Twenty-one states, including Arizona, Illinois, and Virginia, have “regressive” school funding, which means they provide less funding to their high-need districts.

• Fifteen states, including California, Michigan, and South Carolina, have “flat” funding, failing to allocate additional funds to address the academic, social, and health needs of students in their poorest schools.

• Four other states, notably Colorado and Tennessee, do send modestly more funds to poor schools, but rank poorly in overall spending.

• Very few states, including Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New Jersey, have a school funding system that can be considered fair, with high funding overall and increased funding for student poverty.

• Nevada is the nation’s most unfair state, with low spending and less money for a burgeoning population of poor students and English-language learners.

"The sad fact is that most states still fund schools according to how much states are willing to spend."

• Some states with unfair finance systems, such as Colorado, Florida, and Texas, have economies that can support greater investment, but the state legislatures are simply unwilling to do so.

This isn’t just about dollars. The level of funding determines whether effective teachers, Advanced Placement classes, guidance counselors, extra learning time, preschool programs, and other essential resources are available in the nation’s classrooms.

The sad fact is that most states still fund schools according to how much states are willing to spend, usually based on last year’s budget, and then distribute funding to satisfy the demands of powerful political constituencies. Only a handful have enacted finance reforms driven by the actual cost of basic education resources.

In many states, elected officials continue to resist school funding reform, even in the face of court orders, and governors in some states are fighting funding lawsuits rather than using the courts to leverage legislative action.

It is not an overstatement to say that unfair school funding is our biggest obstacle to advancing equal opportunity and improved outcomes, especially for vulnerable children. It’s time to put this issue at the top of the national education agenda.

David G. Sciarra is the executive director of the Education Law Center and a co-author of the "National Report Card."


A Little Transparency Goes a Long Way. Maybe.

By Karen Hawley Miles & Jonathan Travers

In the deep, dark recesses of the Every Student Succeeds Act fine print rests a brief provision requiring districts and states to report per-pupil expenditures at the school level. While that might not seem like a big ask, most states and districts don’t do it now, and we know from years of working with districts, that it isn’t as easy as it sounds to do well.

For previous roundtable discussions on science learning, racial equity in schools, school safety, and more, please vision the OpEducation blog.

Schools serving students with greater needs require more, and sometimes different, resources—people, time, and money—to reach the same high standards. To create financial transparency that informs smart resource-allocation decisions and also advances equity and excellence, states must take a deliberate approach to presenting informative and consistent data in context. This requires states to go beyond the numbers to highlight the drivers of difference. We see three key success factors for districts and states to make the most of ESSA’s new requirement:

1. Report school-level spending accurately.

Accurate reporting sounds simple enough, but many districts report only about half of all funds that go to the school level. Services that play out in schools, like custodial services or special education teachers or benefits for employees who work in schools, are often accounted for at the district level, in one big, lump sum. To provide an accurate picture that the public can compare across districts, states need to work with local education leaders to define a methodology that reflects what actually happens in schools.

2. Provide information to make sense of differences across schools.

Even with consistent, accurate per-pupil numbers, stakeholders need context to make sense of differences. Per-pupil spending varies widely across schools for both strategic and nonstrategic reasons. Interpreting these differences will require data on spending drivers such as concentration of student need, school size, and teacher experience.

3. Place school spending in the context of a broader equity and excellence strategy.

"Equity and excellence aren’t just about how much schools spend, but about how well."

Equity and excellence aren’t just about how much schools spend but also about how well. Indeed, our experience working at Education Resource Strategies has shown that, above a certain baseline, there too often is little correlation between per-pupil spending and student success. To effectively address equity, district reporting must also include metrics that are strongly related to practices that help all students reach higher learning outcomes. What percentage of teachers in a school are highly effective, and how does that align with student needs? Are courses rigorous? Do students and staff feel safe and supported? By providing that context, families and other stakeholders will be able to better connect allocation of resources and student outcomes, and leaders can target action.

The clock is ticking. Designing methodology and reporting structures that provide per-pupil-spending information that is accurate, contextualized, and clearly communicated in place takes time. And the U.S. Department of Education is asking for this to be included in 2018-19 school report cards. Getting this wrong could lead to decisions that work against equity and excellence. Getting it right could provide valuable guidance to help ensure schools are organizing their people, time, and money so that every school succeeds for every student.

Karen Hawley Miles is the CEO of Education Resource Strategies, a nonprofit organization that works with large urban school systems to improve student learning. Jonathan Travers is a partner at ERS.


Poverty Creates Extra Challenges; It Demands Extra Resources

By Morgan Showalter

"They could have shot him in the leg," one of my students exclaimed.

"Yeah, why’d they have to kill him?" another student responded.

We needed to address what was on everybody’s mind. The media had not identified him yet, but we knew he was one of ours. Everyone in the room knew him, this young man shot by the police while he was actively shooting somebody else. Trying to make sense of the situation, one of my students tied the event to the ideas of fate and karma, which we had been exploring through reading "Hamlet." The lesson had begun, but tragically it had already started the night before.

This event from my school day shows us that an entire classroom can be immersed in the consequences of poverty, urban blight, and the lure of criminal activity. It shows us that the proximity of violence and death warrant additional resources in an educational environment, such as targeted health and psychological services.

Fortunately, in my home state, some of those solutions are already in place.

In our current educational funding model in Maryland, extra dollars are allocated to areas in greater need as identified by such factors as high concentrations of poverty and regional issues that would make it difficult to attract teachers. Additionally, jurisdictions lacking in local resources contribute proportionately less to their overall per-pupil expenditures while the state takes on the majority of the remainder.

"The proximity of violence and death warrant additional resources in an educational environment."

The wisdom of this approach is reinforced by research from the National Center for Education and the Economy along with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in their support for targeted funding systems that provide more support to students that need it the most. As well, they suggest that the most talented teachers are assigned to those students. In the United States, we often do the opposite.

The example from my classroom illustrates problems that stem from poverty.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, the child-poverty rate in major American cities increased from 19.9 percent in 2013 to 30.6 percent in 2016. In Maryland, 45 percent of children qualified for free and reduced-price lunches in 2016. Yet, countries with comparative levels of poverty, such as Singapore and Canada, handily outperform our students. So what is the difference?

High-performing countries realize that there are correlations between academic success and providing supports that allow students to be prepared for school in early childhood, along with consistently and adequately providing for the health of all family members.

In the United State we must acknowledge the interconnectedness of the societal woes that plague our most challenged communities, including the decline of manufacturing jobs, food insecurity, drug abuse, historical housing segregation, and mental-health issues. In education, we must continue the targeting of funds for concentrations of poverty as well as for innovative models that deliver on the promise of a free and equitable education for all—such as community schools, whole-child education, and wraparound services.

There are too many stories like the one I shared. It is time we changed this narrative.

Morgan Showalter is a high school special education teacher in the Baltimore school district. He is the appointee of the Baltimore Teachers Union to the Maryland Commission on Excellence and Innovation in Education.


In Education, Follow the Money

By Mike Magee

In the Watergate movie "All the President’s Men," the secret source Deep Throat whispers some now-legendary wisdom: “Follow the money.”

The line encapsulates an important fact: If you want to know the truth, you have to know where the money is going.

That’s especially true in education, where the hot-button issues of funding fairness are deeply connected to questions of justice and opportunity. Variations in wealth and tax bases—and choices by leaders—have profound consequences for school funding. Public systems are charged with ensuring fairness and opportunity, but it is not often clear which systems, schools, and classrooms are getting what. And too often, the most vulnerable students lose out.

The good news is that under the Every Student Succeeds Act, following the money is going to get a lot easier. The law puts us on a better track and brings greater transparency—a level of transparency that is going to create some hard but healthy conversations to advance school equity.

"Some spending ‘inequities’ are actually deliberate and strategic."

The challenge is clear. Students living in poverty and students of color are less than half as likely to be proficient in 4th grade math as their peers. And yet, across the country, we seriously underfund the schools and teachers serving those very students.

On average, high-poverty districts get about $1,200 per student less than low-poverty districts each year, and districts with the most students of color get about $2,000 per student less than districts with the least. What’s more, within districts, the schools that need the most often get even less.

Yet even the people running these systems lack insight into those differences, because they themselves lack the tools to follow the money. The education leaders I work with are deeply passionate about serving all kids, and especially those who need the most support, but obsolete data and finance systems make spending patterns opaque.

Enter ESSA, which requires states and districts to report per-pupil expenditures down to the school level starting in the 2017-18 school year. This exciting change also brings anxiety and challenges because the shift requires expertise, money, and time.

At Chiefs for Change, we’ve set up a network where leading education chiefs can share ideas and offer models for the country. We believe financial transparency, beyond just compliance with the law, will provide fair and strong support of underserved kids.

Our research has found that higher spending does not necessarily mean better services for students. The school may be smaller, the needs of its student population may be greater, or it may have a broader grade configuration. Some spending “inequities” are actually deliberate and strategic. For example, smaller schools may be more expensive to operate, but having a greater number of them allows more kids to attend school in their neighborhood.

This isn’t about limiting options; it’s about understanding the trade-offs and making clear-eyed, equitable decisions.

Because equity isn’t the same as equality. All schools don’t get the same thing when you distribute dollars based on need. But when we make these decisions transparent, we ultimately have a better shot of making them according to shared values.

Forcing important conversations won’t make the decisions easy. But it will make them better.

Mike Magee is CEO of Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit that supports state and district education leaders.


Vol. 37, Issue 01, Pages 26-27

Published in Print: August 23, 2017, as Is School Funding Fair?
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