Budget & Finance

U.S. Spends $23B More on White Districts Than Nonwhite Districts, Report Says

By Daarel Burnette II — February 27, 2019 5 min read
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Despite decades of court fights and countless state and local political battles, there remains today a $23 billion gap between the amount of money spent on predominantly white school districts and predominantly nonwhite school districts, according to a new report by EdBuild, an advocacy organization that pushes for equitable spending.

It’s a point that public school funding advocates in states have been making for some time now, but few national organizations have cited the disparity in such a stark and dramatic way nor attempt to place a dollar figure to the gap in spending.

For its study, EdBuild added up all the local and state tax revenue spent in the 2015-16 school year on school districts that are more than 75 percent white (about $152 billion), and all the local and state tax revenue spent on school districts that are more than 75 percent nonwhite (about $129.7 billion).

The authors found that, on average, the nonwhite school districts get $2,226 less funding per student than the white districts. It found that the high‐poverty, nonwhite districts receive $1,487 less per student than the high‐poverty, white school districts.

The problem, the organization argues, lies in the way America’s schools have become hyper-racially segregated in recent decades and on districts’ heavy reliance on local funding revenue.

“So long as we link opportunity to gerrymandered borders and school funding to local wealth, we will never have a fair education system,” EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia said in a press release. “The wrenching reality is that, from any angle, America is investing billions more in the futures of white children.”

Some state policymakers, however, take issue with the group’s methodology.

EdBuild, for example, did not include charter schools, schools on Native American reservations, or states with racially monolithic populations, such as Idaho. They also did not weigh districts’ size in order to figure out how geography and school district borders affect school resources.

The EdBuild report ranked Arizona as having the highest disparities in the nation, spending $7,613 more on predominantly white school districts than on school districts predominantly serving students of color. That gap is $3,500 more than the state with the next highest-ranked disparity, Nebraska.

But Arizona officials say, while a disparity certainly exists, that number would be much smaller if EdBuild factored in more of the state’s students into its funding formula and weighed district size. (Some of the state’s 666 districts, many of them charter schools, have just a dozen students in them.)

“There’s so many things to question about the data, you can easily dismiss the message,” Anabel Aportela, the director of research for the Arizona School Boards Association, said. “That kind of reporting doesn’t help us.”

EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia said in an interview with Education Week that the researchers “absolutely” stand by their math.

National Debate

The report comes as several increasingly racially diverse states, including Massachusetts, Maryland, and Texas, look to recalibrate outdated school funding formulas that dictate revenue streams for schools. While the average state funding formula is about 20 years old, finance experts suggest such formulas be replaced once every decade.

School districts today are now more dependent on local funds than they are on state funds, a trend that reversed in recent years after state school spending dwindled during the last recession.

Overhauling funding formulas is a politically thorny and extremely complicated process. It includes trying to figure out how much it costs to educate students, all with a varying set of needs; figuring out how to divvy up sales, income, and property revenue among hundreds of districts; and then determining what districts should spend that money on.

Political hurdles abound: Taxpayers are increasingly hostile to new taxes and sharing tax revenue with neighboring racially segregated districts and district superintendents often fiercely compete against each other for state and federal resources.

Districts that serve large portions of poor students and students of color have historically struggled in recruiting and retaining quality—and inevitably more expensive—teachers. And several recent studies show that as poor students cluster in a schoolhouse, schools have to pay for more wraparound services such as school nurses and school psychologists and reduce class sizes to ameliorate the effects of poverty.

Funding formulas being pushed in recent years in states would provide more money to districts that serve large concentrations of poor students, students with special needs, and English-language learners. But convincing mostly white districts to sign on to those sorts of plans are politically difficult.

The newest battlefront is equalizing funding between schools. Even in states where districts receive similar amounts of money, districts then disburse that money between schools in uneven, haphazard and, some critics point out, racially discriminatory ways.

But, the political debates aside, states’ own studies have come to similar conclusions: taxpayers spend more on white and wealthy students than they spend on poor students and students of color.

A Maryland commission on school finance, for example, recently released a report that says it would cost $4.4 billion over the next decade in order to provide Maryland’s increasingly diverse student body an adequate education. Among the commission’s findings: the fewer white students at a school, the less money it has to spend.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.