While a wave of protests, teacher strikes, and student walkouts has exposed the outrageous inequality plaguing the public education system, the budget numbers reveal how unfair funding programs dictate what our children are worth, depending on where they live, the color of their skin, and their families’ wealth.
School funding levels, according to the analysis of the Education Law Center and the Rutgers Graduate School of Education , vary most dramatically along school-district lines, generally dictated by local property taxes, which renders the education of some wealthy children funded at double the rate of a poor kid’s. There are also stark disparities across state lines, with statehouses primarily managing education policy. Fifteen years after “No Child Left Behind” promised to “close the achievement gaps” in race and socioeconomic background, children in more than one-third of the states are not just stagnating, they’re sliding backward with what the ELC calls “regressive” funding. In 17 states, including relatively affluent Connecticut and Maine, the school systems “provide less funding to their higher poverty school districts, even though students in these districts require more resources to achieve.” In many states, including Michigan and Arizona, poor kids are priced out of educational equity: “only the lowest-poverty districts have sufficient funding to reach national average student achievement outcomes.”
In other states, concentrated in the South, funding is both inadequate and stagnant. The worst-funded states also tend to neglect the basic educational interventions that could close the gaps in academic performance by underfunding early-childhood education, paying their teachers lower wages, and failing to tackle high turnover rates and major gaps in staffing levels. The massive workload on teachers is compounded by low student-to-faculty ratios that keep children cycling through overburdened schools, overworked teachers, and curricula inadequate for meeting basic state standards—which in turn results in year upon year of “underperforming” ratings for the district.
Nationwide, most states maintained “flat” or “regressive” funding patterns that ignore the need for additional funding in high-poverty districts, and just 11 states allocated additional funds to offset the barriers of concentrated poverty. That’s just half the number of schools making the extra effort to tackle poverty a decade ago, as the country was just diving into the Great Recession.
Under the Obama administration, school reformers led a drive toward testing and assessment as the chief measure of academic “achievement,” which, when coupled with the punishing austerity budgets that states imposed on many of their school services and programs, caused schools to become more unequal across the country, between districts, and even within communities. Despite the promises of equity in education, poor families’ children are being left far behind with wildly unequal funding levels: There’s a threefold difference between per-student spending in New York (with more than $18,500 spent on each child—though schools remain highly segregated) and Idaho (with less than $6,300 spent per student). In Utah, poor districts are actually punished financially, receiving 25 percent less funding than per child in a richer neighboring district.
The report also found more subtle ways that underfunding undermines educational quality. The majority of states lack progressive teacher-staffing ratios, for example, so that students who face high poverty levels are assigned the same distribution of teachers as better-off children, or are actually in schools with fewer teachers per class compared to more affluent districts. In Florida, for example, “the poorest districts have about 25 percent fewer teachers per 100 students than low poverty districts.”
Many states have tried to close funding gaps over the years. Nationwide the number of districts with targeted integration plans has more than doubled since 2007, according to the Center for American Progress (CAP). But funding reforms such as strategic district zoning to encourage economic integration and magnet school programs only reach about 8 percent of all students. The Trump administration is now pulling back funding from integration projects, leaving struggling school districts to pursue such initiatives on their own, at a time when all school funding is increasingly constrained.
According to Sharon Krengel, NLC’s policy and outreach director, whether they’re spreading around funding or designing enrollment plans to move kids across district lines, “what is essential is a state finance system that recognizes the unique needs of all students, especially low-income students, and delivers funding equitably and adequately…equalized does not mean equitable. Equity means that poor students—who require more services—get additional funding to address those needs.”
It’s also important to recognize why those needs exist. Disparities in school funding, insofar as they are direct reflections of inequality across districts, can be traced to historically ingrained patterns of housing segregation and discrimination. The link between economic and racial stratification has an acute impact in about 40 percent of school districts, according to CAP, with a majority of students attending economically isolated schools, so that wealthier and poorer kids are physically and socially segregated throughout their educational careers.
The problem has gotten so bad in some communities that lawsuits have been filed to hold states accountable for unfair funding levels. In New York, the Alliance for Quality Education has led a massive litigation effort to compel the state to redistribute funds to ensure equitable funding for students in poor schools. The effort has made some progress in equalizing funding over the years, but progress has been stalled by systemwide cutbacks to K–12 education, and the latest budget proposal from Governor Cuomo offers less than half of what it would take to fulfill the goals of the Alliance’s equity plan.
School budgets are moral documents, revealing not only how much society values education as a public good, but how we value the children of different communities. Today, with a reactionary administration seeking to privatize public education further, children living in extreme deprivation stand to lose the most. About four in 10 students attend schools in districts with poverty rates of upwards of 75 percent, which perpetuates the structural poverty that keeps families trapped in poor communities with impoverished schools.
Underfunding education doesn’t just leave the most vulnerable children ill-prepared for the world, it makes the world a crueler and more divided place to grow up in.