On the all-too-frequent occasions when school shootings dominate the American news cycle, the conversation often turns to beefing up security measures in school buildings.
In the aftermath of last week’s fatal shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville, lawmakers in Tennessee and Pennsylvania have proposed mandating armed guards at every school in the state; the Des Moines schools in Iowa passed a budget that doubled school security funding for metal detectors, equipment, and more dispatchers; and a Wisconsin government agency assigned to oversee school safety made a public plea for more permanent funding.
For Kate Yang, an assistant professor of state and local finance at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., earlier iterations of this trend raised a different question, about whether persistent pressure to harden schools following deadly tragedies led to cuts in spending on instruction. Could that explain the well documented drop in academic achievement that tends to play out in districts that experience school shootings?
Along with Maithreyi Gopalan, an assistant professor of education and public policy at Pennsylvania State University, Yang examined spending and enrollment trends for districts that experienced school shootings between 1999 and 2018.
It turns out that schools that experience shootings don’t tend to cut instructional spending as a result of increased investment in security measures. In fact, school shootings tend to drive up spending by an average of $248 per student, according to Yang and Gopalan’s paper, published in 2021 in the journal Education Finance and Policy.
That’s in part because schools that experience shootings tend to see an accompanying increase in federal funding through grant programs like the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program for funding school resource officer positions, and the Department of Education’s Project SERV (School Emergency Response to Violence) to cover the costs of restoring schooling in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event, Yang and Gopalan found.
“That provides some reassurance to people that there are actually increased federal transfers coming in to support those districts,” Yang said.
But that’s not to say that schools where shootings take place are shielded from negative financial effects in the years after the tragedy. Yang and Gopalan found that those schools often lose students from wealthier families to other districts at a faster rate within five years than they lose lower-income students, and at a faster rate than in comparable districts where no shooting took place.
On average, schools where shootings took place in the two decades the researchers reviewed saw enrollment drops of 12 percent among students who aren’t eligible for free and reduced-price meals. Meanwhile, the number of students who do qualify for free and reduced-price meals stayed virtually the same. Similar districts without a shooting saw much lower decreases in enrollment of students who don’t qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
The same trends applied to entire districts as well, and private schools where shootings took place.
Students from low-income families tend to have lower test scores than wealthier students, which could help explain why districts with school shootings show a drop in academic performance in the years following the shooting.
Losing students also translates in many states to fewer resources for those who remain—less money for fixed costs like teacher salaries and utility bills—as many state funding formulas allocate aid based largely on enrollment. Students from low-income families also tend to require more robust investment to educate than wealthier students, which means an increased concentration of students in poverty in schools could prompt higher costs in the ensuing years.
From Yang’s perspective, these findings should inspire even larger and longer-term financial investment in support systems that help communities recover from the devastating impact of school shootings. That work should focus on ensuring that districts where school shootings took place don’t maintain a negative reputation that causes families to look elsewhere, she said.
“There’s a lot of talk about security to prevent future shootings. But we believe there should be more thinking about how to mitigate that stigma effect,” Yang said.
Why school shootings end up raising costs for taxpayers
Yang and Gopalan’s paper highlights the importance of examining school shootings not just to determine how and why they happened, but to prepare for the long-term repercussions a community may experience after a shooting.
The prevalence of emergency federal funding in the aftermath of school shootings also means such shootings hit everyone’s wallets, whether they realize it or not, Yang said.
In 2022, for instance, the federal government sent more than $5.5 million in Project SERV grants to 16 education institutions, including eight school districts, that experienced traumatic shooting incidents or other disruptive events like natural disasters, suicide clusters, or terrorism. The Uvalde district in Texas was among those eight recipients, and it was also among more than 270 districts last year that received a grant from the Justice Department’s COPS School Violence Prevention program, which awarded a total of nearly $72 million nationwide.
Those numbers represent a tiny fraction of the federal government’s overall education spending, but a notable set of funds nonetheless.
Those increased funds often fuel investments in capital projects, like construction to enhance security or the acquisition of new security-related technology, that schools often finance by issuing bonds and paying off debt over time. The eventual dropoff in federal investment can mean local taxpayers end up facing a heavier burden to help the district pay back the remaining cost of the project as well as mounting interest.
Districts where school shootings took place took on $752 in additional debt per student within three years of the tragedy, Yang and Gopalan’s research shows.
“Federal taxpayers nationwide are picking up the tab,” Yang said. “If there’s a policy interest in reducing the cost of shootings, there should be an interest in preventing shootings.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 2023 edition of Education Week as School Shootings: The Long-Term Financial Fallout