Unequal Funding for Schools
How do you respond to a parent who complains that her child’s school receives only $6,400 in per-pupil spending, while a school down the road receives nearly $10,000 per student? And what do you say to complaints that capital spending over the past decade has put modern, well-equipped schools in affluent suburbs, while inner-city neighborhoods make do with aging buildings without gyms, modern science labs, or even libraries?
A common response might be to point to the lamentable inequities of state education funding formulas, which despite untold legislative battles and court challenges allow affluent communities to invest far more in their schools than can poorer districts.
But what if these complaints focused on funding inequities within the same district — your school district?
“Often, there can be a disparity in a school district that goes unnoticed or unaddressed, that needs to be changed,” says Edwin Darden, director of education law and policy for Appleseed, a network of public interest justice centers that has studied this issue. “It exists because school board members aren’t purposeful in looking at funding that way.”
In some districts, these funding inequities can be sizable. Studies have found districts in which schools of similar size have budgets that vary by as much as $500,000 to $1 million. Sometimes the reasons for these disparities are clear: Money is set aside for students with greater need. Or it’s invested in such strategic priorities as magnet programs or small high schools where campus costs exceed the economies of scale found in larger, traditional schools.
Yet at other times the reasons for sizable budget differences are not so readily apparent. In Texas, a lawsuit against the Clint Independent School District alleges that per-pupil spending among the district’s three high schools varies by as much as $3,500. Meanwhile, a civil rights group in Austin, Texas, is questioning why one elementary school, with only 2.9 percent of students living in poverty, receives roughly $600 more per student than another school with 97.8 percent of students who are economically disadvantaged.
Some school leaders will argue serious inequities cannot possibly exist in their districts — that any apparent disparities in school budgets or per-pupil spending are the result of sound reasoning. But Darden says such confidence can be misplaced: He recalls advising one board member on how to audit the equity of educational opportunities in her district — and her surprise at the findings. “The board member called me back and said, ‘Guess what? We didn’t do nearly as well as expected.’”
Questions of equity
A look at any district budget — with its rows and columns of figures — reveals the challenges in identifying questionable funding decisions. Money is drawn from so many accounts and distributed using formulas of almost arcane origin. The central office distributes extra funds on behalf of its priorities, and principals lobby for support of new initiatives. Sometimes money flows to schools long after their original purpose is forgotten.
And exactly how do you define equity in spending? In a public response to the lawsuit attacking its allocation of resources, the Clint school district argued that money is an imperfect measure of the educational experiences available to students: “There are many factors which determine how our campuses are funded: including academic programs, special program enrollment, athletics, federal funding, grants … age and size of buildings.”
That defense has validity. Still, some policy groups argue that a closer look at budget disparities can raise any number of red flags for school leaders. In its 2010 report, Close the Hidden Funding Gaps in Our Schools, the Education Trust suggested the common practice of assigning resources through staffing allocations and programming can mask the true investment that a district puts into its schools.
How does that play out? Schools serving affluent neighborhoods, on average, attract teachers with more experience and advanced degrees, which under most contracts results in more money being spent in these schools for teacher pay. Meanwhile, lower salary costs at high-poverty schools shrink their share of local and state funds. In some instances, even with the addition of Title I and other categorical aid, Education Trust reported, these schools can end up receiving less money overall.
If all teachers were equal, any salary differential would be irrelevant. But all teachers are not equal. High-poverty schools tend to have greater staff turnover and a greater need for teacher support and training. If the per-pupil cost of teachers is not a budget consideration, and more money flows to affluent schools, the potential for real inequity must be considered.
It’s a potential the Education Trust sees fulfilled far too often. “The budgeting practices of school districts frequently favor schools that serve the fewest poor children,” its report concluded. “This undercuts the intent of policymakers and advocates — and robs poor children of funds intended to help them.”
Nor is teacher pay the only concern. Parents in affluent schools often are more active in lobbying for resources for their schools, and there can be a subtle expectation of equal services. This can skew spending in ways often unnoticed. If a high-poverty school uses Title I funds to create a gifted program, for example, Education Trust noted that “a district will find state and local dollars to pay for similar services in the more affluent counterparts.”
Indeed, the Public Policy Institute of California’s study of state districts found that affluent schools often receive $200 more in local and state funds for non-teacher-related expenses.
Meanwhile, other inequities don’t reveal themselves in the annual budget. They’re found in the buildings where students learn. In 2011, the Boston Globe pointed to an equity gap in Boston facilities, telling the story of two elementary schools only three miles apart geographically — but light years apart in terms of physical condition. One school had no cafeteria, gym, or library. The other had two cafeterias, an indoor basketball court, a heated swimming pool, music room, and a library of 7,000 books.
Money alone is not the answer to providing students a good education. Any number of high-performing schools across the nation rank poorly in per-pupil spending or the quality of school facilities. Nevertheless, concerns about the allocation of resources have prompted policy changes in a number of school systems.
Some have initiated, for example, a “fair funding formula” that attempts to assign at least some funding to schools on a per-pupil basis. Often this funding is “weighted,” meaning additional money is allocated to schools for each student who lives in poverty, is struggling to learn English, or has other special challenges to learning.
It’s a budget model that’s particularly popular in larger suburban, countywide, and urban districts with significant geographical variations in demographics — and where varying educational challenges make a fair distribution of resources far more problematic.
This approach has helped numerous districts make great strides in ensuring equitable funding. But it’s far from perfect. In New York City, the NAACP and other civil rights groups say weighted funding has not done enough to level the educational playing field for minority students in high-poverty neighborhoods.
In Boston, a 2011 budget shortfall created what the Globe described as a new set of “winners” and “losers” in that year’s funding allocations. With money distributed according to student needs, some high-needs schools saw minimal budget cuts while other schools experienced “real decreases in funding.”
For all the energy put into allocating funding as fairly as possible, however, it’s important to remember that money is not the final arbiter of equity, Darden says. It’s the educational opportunities that students enjoy that matters. Putting lots of money into a foreign language program makes no sense if what students really need is an extra hour in reading and math instruction — and the school needs more teachers in these core subjects.
Making good decisions
Even with a weighted funding formula, a central office can still subvert the decision-making process with prescriptive budget directives. What’s more, without adequate training and support, some schools will be hampered by a lack of human capacity to make sound spending decisions.
To head off that latter problem, New York City officials rely on one of their other reform initiatives, a cadre of “support networks” designed to provide schools with training and technical support.
It’s important that school leaders insist that budget decisions be made as close to the kids as possible — and that there be accountability, says Karma Wilson, executive director of financial strategies for the New York City schools.
“The principal and school leadership team must develop a comprehensive educational plan and look strategically at their entire student population … and look at concrete ways to help their students,” says Wilson. “They need to [articulate] how they use their budgets to meet their students’ needs and the school’s educational goals. It’s about autonomy and accountability in the hands of schools.”
But not all money decisions can be made at the school level. Districtwide priorities and capital spending decisions rest with the central office and school board, which face their own challenges in seeing that money is distributed fairly and effectively.
“Grappling with equity is difficult,” admits Erika Ellis Steward, a board member for North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. “Ask the nine members of our board, and you’ll get nine different answers. We have conversations about what equity is. Is it about facilities? Opportunities in the classroom? Class offerings? What are we talking about?”
Her district has tried a multitude of strategies. One of its most promising is strategic staffing, an attempt to jump-start the educational opportunities in a school by sending in a top-notch principal and a cadre of experienced teachers. That’s supported with financial incentives for this turnaround team, as well as money for more administrative support. Staffing and funding levels at schools also are adjusted based on student needs. And, over the past decade, Steward says, the school board has attempted to invest in building and renovations in older, less-affluent parts of the county.
“We’re trying to do the right thing with our policies, our construction decisions, how we fund the academic side, how we staff schools,” she says. “We don’t have all the answers, but there’s an attempt to do right.”
No one has all the answers. But some are searching hard for them. School officials in Fayette County, Ky., have come up with a promising approach: They’ve established an Equity Council to monitor and analyze equity issues within the district and advise the school board on policies and programs.
Meanwhile, in Austin, Texas, school officials are partnering with Education Resource Strategies (ERS), a nonprofit group working with school districts nationwide to equalize their funding systems. They are analyzing how money is allocated, how schools are spending that money, and whether that spending is helping the district achieve its goals.
“They take a deep look, a diagnostic review, of how you spend your dollars to see how equitable the district is in its spending,” says Nicole Conley, the district’s chief financial officer. “It’s a very challenging endeavor, so I can understand why some districts haven’t come in line to do it.”
It may be understandable, but school boards cannot afford to ignore the issues of equity, Darden says.
“This is tough stuff. But this is the kind of thing we’re encouraging school boards to do. It goes to your values, to your belief in the ability of kids in poverty to achieve. It goes to your ability to navigate and negotiate with powerful entities in your community, and it goes to your ability to create policies that really accomplish things … things that contribute highly to the future of kids.”
Del Stover (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior editor of American School Board Journal.
Cover illustration by Michael Glenwood.
Equity reflects community’s values and commitment
Any school board that examines whether district resources are equitably distributed is really looking at its community’s values and commitment to provide all children with equal educational opportunities. And that’s a policy issue where a school board is well-served by seeking the input and support of parents, staff, and community members.
That’s the message offered by school board members, senior administrators, and school finance experts who’ve helped school districts examine issues of funding equity.
“The issue is never going to be solely about resources,” says Baltimore City Schools CEO Andrés Alonso. “It can’t simply be about dollars. It has to be about a set of beliefs and values about kids and about schools.”
The Baltimore City school board implemented its fair funding formula after extensive discussions with principals, union officials, and the community, he says. School officials wanted transparency during the policy discussion so that the goals of the board’s strategy were understood and, it was hoped, accepted as an important step to improve educational outcomes within the city’s more academically struggling schools.
“We wanted real clarity about what we were doing,” Alonso says. “We wanted a districtwide conversation about our values at the district, board and community level. We had to land on a theory of how schools improve. What we found was [the conversation] changed the alchemy of the work in some ways, because it created enormous engagement and buy-in.”
Such buy-in is important, because not everyone in the community will understand — or accept — the argument that equity in funding has a different meaning than equal funding for every child, says Jay Chambers, a senior research fellow at the American Institutes of Research.
“Obviously you can’t engage the entire district, but if you have some leaders among parents and community members who can stand up and say, ‘We’ve observed this as we’ve gone through the process. This is reasonable. This is a rational process for allocating funds … I’m not sure that everyone will agree, but you’ve done the best you can.”
Even if school officials build that consensus, they will need to articulate repeatedly the district’s values and the wisdom for their resource allocation. For years, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have put more money and staffing into high-needs schools, but district leaders recently have begun hearing rumblings about the board’s resource priorities, says board President Mary McCray.
“I don’t know if it’s a change in attitude, a change in climate, a change in the population … it could be a number of factors,” she says. “But this is the first year where we’ve had a lot of questions about this.”