Education Funding What the Research Says

Districts Are Spending More Per Student. Here’s How to Make Sure All of Them Benefit

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 29, 2022 4 min read
Educators delivering money.
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Money is a perennial stress point for education leaders, but the pandemic has made budget needs even more urgent. Studies suggest it could take upwards of $600 billion to bring students back academically from learning disruptions over the last three years, and ongoing student absenteeism can hamstring district efforts to stabilize funding.

The most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics suggest districts and states have been spending more on average per student across a wide array of instruction and student supports since 2019. Total per-pupil spending rose from $13,395 before the pandemic to $13,489 in 2020, the most recent year available. But average daily attendance, which is used to calculate federal and state funding for schools, fell in 14 states during that time; New Mexico saw the largest drop at 2.4 percent.

Overall, post-pandemic research analyses suggest that for every $1,000 more that schools spend per student, student graduation rate improve by nearly 2 percentage points and their likelihood of going to college increases by more than 2.6 percentage points. But these results take sustained investment over four years or more to bear fruit. And districts so far aren’t spending the average $2,400 per student they’re getting in federal emergency relief money quickly and sustainably enough to avoid a funding cliff in 2024, according to an ongoing study by Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab.

The Georgetown study and other studies discussed at the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management conference in Washington, D.C., earlier this month highlighted ways school and district leaders can rethink parent contributions and staff supports to both stretch budgets and ensure equity for all students.

Scrutinize parent funding and distribute it evenly

Northwestern University economist Claire Mackevicius has been tracking the ways parent booster groups can deepen inequities in school budgets. Mackevicius tracked the fundraising contributions of 600 parent-teacher associations and other booster groups in Illinois. On average, these boosters raised nearly $119 per student, but the top 20 percent of them raised nearly $300 per student—accounting in some cases for an additional 10 percent of school budgets.

All told, in 2017 alone these parent boosters raised more than $35 million in K-12 school spending. While the boosters themselves filed taxes, Mackevicius found parent-raised money is generally not taken into account in overall district budgeting, and parent-booster money overwhelmingly went to wealthier and whiter schools. For example, 40 percent of schools in the wealthiest quarter received supplemental funding from parent organizations, while the poorest quarter of schools had only a 2 percent chance of having parent-booster fundraising.

Similarly, the schools serving the highest concentrations of white students had parent boosters that raised $200 to $500 per student, compared to $80 per student in the schools serving the highest populations or students of color.

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Narayan Mahon for Education Week
Budget & Finance Do Private Donations Reinforce School Disparities?
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“It really kind of raises the question of what are you raising money for? Are you raising money because there’s this thing you really want to buy ... or are you raising money because this is how you have a voice in the system?” said Nora Gordon, an economist and public policy professor at Georgetown University.

District leaders can encourage more equitable approaches to school fundraising. For example, parent-teacher associations in Evanston/Skokie School District 65 in Illinois pool their fundraising and work together to reduce spending gaps among schools.

Consider teacher licensure support

Staffing remains the biggest share of school budgets, and teacher shortages in areas like math, reading, and special education have driven up staffing costs in many districts. During the pandemic, many states waived licensure exams and created emergency teaching licenses to fill those gaps.

One new study suggests districts need to invest in these new teachers to make them into a permanent talent pool, rather than a temporary solution.

Andrew Bacher-Hicks and colleagues at Boston University analyzed Massachusetts teacher licensure records after June 2020, when the state created emergency licenses that required teachers only to have a bachelor’s degree and waived teaching exam requirements. Nearly 1 in 5 new teachers in the state since 2020 came into the field using an emergency license, they found, and three times as many Black and Hispanic new teachers have entered the field through an emergency route rather than the traditional licensure.

As a result, Bacher-Hicks found Black and Hispanic students are now 12 percentage points more likely to have a teacher of their same racial or ethnic background.

“Nearly 6,000 individuals earned an emergency license in Massachusetts in its first year. So it plays an important role in preventing additional shortages that could have occurred to the workforce,” Bacher-Hicks said. “The problem is that this is only temporary. So we want to maintain some of the benefits that we’ve seen through the emergency license, because we need these teachers to stick around.”

He found teachers with emergency licenses report that their biggest barriers to obtaining full licensure are not having time to complete the requirements, and not being able to pass the state licensure test. Schools can help keep teachers long term by providing time within their schedules to study for their full licenses, and teacher-coaches can help monitor new teachers’ progress.

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