Poor states, communities, and children persistently get the short end of the stick in school funding. Education spending policies at all levels-federal, state, and local-layer on inequities that disproportionately benefit high-wealth school districts and lead to large funding disparities between high- and low-poverty communities. A new report from Education Sector and the Center on Reinventing Public Education seeks to quantify the cumulative impacts of these inequities on local schools. The results are striking. Addressing these inequities should be a key priority for federal and state policymakers.
The Education Sector/Center on Reinventing Public Education report examines two elementary schools in neighboring states that serve similar populations but receive very different levels of federal, state, and local funding. Cameron Elementary in Fairfax County, Va., receives more than twice the per pupil funding Ponderosa Elementary in Cumberland County, N.C., receives even though both schools serve predominantly low-income populations in poorer sections of their respective counties. These funding disparities are the result of funding distribution structures that disproportionately benefit wealthier states, districts, and schools over poorer states, districts, and schools.
The federal government distributes Title I funds to states based on the number of poor children in each state to improve the quality of the services they receive. However, the specific amount allotted per student depends on how much money a state and its localities spend on education. Because state and local spending is more a function of the wealth of the state and locality than a function of the cost of providing that education, wealthy states like Virginia receive more Title I funds per poor child than poorer states like North Carolina.
While federal funding disparities are significant, 90 percent of the funding schools receive comes from state and local sources. State policies determine both the amount and distribution of these funds, and are a major source of inequities. In Virginia, state funds provide a minimum foundation for education funding-40 percent-that each locality must match out of local funds. Localities can also choose to supplement school funding with additional local tax revenues. North Carolina, in contrast, uses a district funding formula based on student enrollment and cost of hiring teachers and staff that benefits wealthier districts and has no local matching requirement. As a result, local funding constitutes 31 percent of education funding in North Carolina and more than 53 percent in Virginia. Less flush districts like Cumberland County, N.C., are unable to supplement education spending as much as wealthier districts like Fairfax County, Va., and have no incentive to do so.
Finally, district-level funding distribution practices benefit wealthier, easier to staff schools over schools with poorer, more challenging populations. Seniority staffing rules and experience-based salary schedules mean that higher poverty schools are generally staffed by cheaper, less experienced teachers.
We've written previously about how the No Child Left Behind Act's funding comparability requirements contribute to this problem, by allowing districts to overlook these experience-based salary differences when determining whether teacher salary funds are allocated equitably between Title I (read: more poor) and non-Title I (read: more affluent) schools. As a result, poorer schools spend less money on teacher salaries and therefore have fewer resources overall.
The impact of these differences is striking: Despite its high poverty population, Cameron is succeeding at retaining qualified and experienced teachers, while Ponderosa has a constantly cycling staff of inexperienced teachers. As a result, the average teacher at Cameron makes $62,533, compared to $35,610 for the average Ponderosa teacher. Whatever Cameron is doing right to maintain its teachers is worth thousands in increased spending on teacher salaries at the school.
The ES/CRPE report provides a series of policy recommendations to mend the funding disparities at the federal, state and district level. Among these is eliminating the section of the federal comparability requirement which allows districts to ignore experienced-based salary differences when determining whether funding is equal across schools. This change would force districts to recognize the mal-distribution of experienced teachers in their schools and act accordingly to fix it.
The report also suggests that districts give schools a standard amount of funding per student for paying teacher salaries rather than basing funding on the salaries of the actual teachers each school hires. This way schools will be able to prioritize between hiring many inexperienced teachers or a few experienced teachers and consider offering incentives to highly desirable teachers. Both of these changes would be important steps toward improving the equity of school funding and would give poorer schools a real chance to attract and retain qualified and experienced teachers. Other policy recommendations include:
- Basing Title I funding on national average per student funding (adjusted for both state wealth and actual cost of education in that state), rather than state and local funding;
- Encouraging states to provide minimum floors and maximum ceilings for state and local education funding contributions; and
- Distributing state education funding in inverse proportion to district wealth, in order to mitigate disparities in spending due to differences in the amount of property tax revenue districts can raise.
Each of these proposals is likely to face political opposition-especially those that seek to lessen the role of property taxes, and therefore local control, in education funding. However, they would be significant strides towards equalizing both inter- and intra-state education funding disparities across the country and giving low-income students the education they need and deserve.