Budget & Finance

Everybody Supports ‘Equity,’ But How Do They Define It?

By Daarel Burnette II — November 13, 2019 4 min read

Pursuing equity—however it’s defined—has become a rallying cry for K-12 educators and advocates alike. More than half of America’s 50 million students today are nonwhite, and a growing number of them are English-language learners or students with special needs. There are widespread and well-documented disparities between the educational needs of these student groups and their classroom peers.

Policymakers, researchers, district administrators, and teachers have taken it upon themselves to push for “equity” between student groups. At professional conferences, in school posters, at administrative headquarters, and in school board’s vision statements, equity usually is understood to eradicate those disparities or make “equal” academic outcomes between all student groups. It has also come to mean equal access to gifted programming, high-quality teachers, and high-quality curriculum.

But in the purely fiscal world, the word “equity” has a much muddier, complicated—and legally fraught—definition. And the issue is likely to come under renewed scrutiny with the Every Student Succeeds Act‘s new requirement for public release of school-by-school spending data as an element of states’ school report cards.

Many states pledge in their constitutions to provide an “equitable” education, while rarely—if ever—spelling out exactly what that means. (To complicate things even more, many states also pledge to provide an “adequate” education, leaving that similarly murky as well.)

As a result, policymakers and the courts have long struggled to define equitable spending, most often focusing on spending imbalances between districts.

For decades, courts pushed legislatures to make funding the same between districts. In more recent years, after states established learning standards, courts have defined equity to mean how much spending it would require to get different groups of students—those of color, for example, or English-learners—to meet the state’s standards. But a growing number of states’ highest courts, such as Texas’ and Connecticut’s, have determined that, while spending patterns between districts was visibly inequitable, it was not the court’s role to dictate to legislatures how to spend taxpayers’ money.

Equity Among Districts Elusive

Most states, for a variety of reasons, still have not reached equitable spending between districts as defined by their courts, or spending at levels that’s enough to get all student groups to meet state standards, as defined by researchers.

Decades of research indicates that more money matters, but researchers have not concluded how that money should be spent, or in what amount, to improve academic outcomes. As a result, state legislatures and plaintiffs in court cases have employed researchers to conduct expensive and often controversial studies to put a price tag on equitable spending.

Advocacy groups have long complained about inexperienced teachers, leaky roofs, and fewer Advanced Placement programs at certain schools within districts. But they often lacked evidence to quantify those imbalances.

Advocates hope that new spending data required under ESSA, which is being released along with state 2018-19 report cards this year, will force courts to grapple again with what equity means and whether the courts should force districts to spend equitably.

How do educators define fiscal equity when it comes to K-12 schools? In a nationwide survey of school principals and district-level administrators for a special report on school finance earlier this year, the Education Week Research Center asked for their definitions and came up with a wide range of answers. Here’s a sample:

“Spending money equally for students that are male vs. female, college-bound vs. tech-school-bound vs. military. ... Money may be spent differently to enable all to succeed.” —Chief technology officer in a rural Wisconsin district

“Making sure students’ needs are met while also making sure teachers are paid fairly.” —Chief financial officer in a southwestern Colorado district

“Equality is giving everyone a pair of shoes. Equity is giving everyone a pair of shoes that fits their feet. Equitable school spending is dependent on the individual needs of local schools.” —Middle school principal in a suburban Connecticut district

“Investment of time and treasure to achieve more equitable outcomes for students of varied attributes.” —Superintendent in a rural Arizona district

“I don’t believe there is a perfect plan, but something has to be better than what we have now. Current funding depends too much on voting demographics than need.” —Chief financial officer in a western New York state district

“All districts, nationwide, should have all of the resources the best-funded schools in the nation have.” —Superintendent in a Long Island, N.Y., district

“If a school is serving 53 percent of students in poverty, that school should receive federal [Title I] dollars that those kids are generating for the district. We are not.” —Principal at a charter school in Charleston, S.C.

“Every student’s needs are met so everyone can achieve mastery of the guaranteed and viable curriculum. This requires facilities, technology, resources, a wide range of support structures, and especially highly qualified teachers.” —Director of curriculum in a rural New Hampshire district

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A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 2019 edition of Education Week as Everybody Supports ‘Equity,’ But How Do They Define It?

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