Show me the money

We read new reports on the state of school funding in America so you don’t have to. Here’s what we learned.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Education advocates rally outside of the building where Shelby County's Board of Commissioners meet to discuss funding for Shelby County Schools.

Utah spends about $7,000 per student in its public schools, but gives much more to schools with many poor kids. New York spends more than $18,000 per student, but doesn’t give extra money to high-poverty school districts.

What’s the right number, and who should get the most? The questions are at the heart of many of the heated battles in public education: In Detroit, teachers have complained about buildings that are falling apart, while lawsuits from Washington to New York to Kansas have led to protracted legal fights.

It makes sense to look closely at education spending, since several recent studies link more money in schools to better outcomes for students. But describing the state of school funding in the U.S. is tricky, since schools receive a combination of local, state, and federal dollars and because disparities can exist between states, between districts, and between schools.

That’s why we combed through three recent reports from the Education Law Center, Education Trust, and the Urban Institute, which help explain how big the school funding pot is and how that money is really divvied out.

What stands out is that while poor students necessarily don’t get less money than their affluent peers, they usually don’t get the extra money that funding advocates say is necessary for addressing additional needs. Here are some of the major takeaways.

1. A state’s high-poverty school districts usually don’t get more state and local money than its affluent districts.

In 20 states, both kinds of districts get about the same amount of money. In 12 states, more money went to impoverished districts. But in 16 states, more money actually went to wealthier districts, according to the Education Law Center report. (Alaska and Hawaii were excluded. And like the other reports in this piece, it uses data that are a few years old, in this case running through 2015.)

There were some notable outliers: New Jersey gives 20 percent more money to poor districts, for example, while Nevada gives poor districts 40 percent less.

Funding advocates say a flat distribution is nothing to celebrate, since there is evidence that poor students need more money spent on their schools to reach comparable outcomes.

2. High-poverty and low-poverty schools also tend to get about equal amounts of money from their districts.

Recent research has found that schools serving poorer students tend to get the same amount as, or even a tiny bit more than, other schools. But there are exceptions: in some of the least equitable districts, poor students and students of color get between $300 and $500 less than wealthier and white students.

Starting next school year, the federal education law requires states to report how much is spent at each individual school, which advocates are hoping to pressure districts with disparities to close them.

3. When you zoom out, things look worse for students in high-poverty schools, since they’re more likely to be located in states that spend less on education.

Spending disparities grow when you compare poor school districts nationwide to wealthier ones. Here’s why: poor students are more likely to live in states with weaker economies and that spend less on education.

For example, there’s a greater share of poor kids in Mississippi (which spends about $7,000 per student, according to the Education Law Center) than in Massachusetts (which spends about $15,000 per student).

Education Trust tried to quantify that disparity between states. The civil rights and education organization, led by former U.S. Education Secretary John King, found that American students in poor school districts get an average of about $1,000 less in state and local dollars than those in wealthier districts. This is also an important reminder that states spend widely varying amounts per student.

Bruce Baker, a Rutgers professor and the author of the Education Law Center report, said that gaps like these are concerning, though people should keep in mind that costs of living and other factors also vary. “When you start trying to compare nationally, you really have to find a way to thoroughly correct for a whole bunch of different cost factors,” he said.

4. But federal dollars generally do what they’re designed to do: make school spending more progressive.

The Urban Institute analysis shows that federal money — which accounts for only about 10 percent of total education spending — ensures that in almost all cases, poor districts end up with as much or more money than wealthier districts in the same state. (This doesn’t mean, though, that the federal dollars even out the disparities between states.)

5. When you sort schools based on race, school spending disparities are even worse than when you sort schools by income.

Most studies of school funding gaps focus on those between higher- and lower-poverty schools. But the Education Trust report also compared how states fund districts with more students of color versus those with more white students.

In many cases there were substantial differences: 11 states that sent more or the same to poor districts actually sent less to districts with more students of color (and only one was the reverse).

Another recent analysis found that, even controlling for poverty, Pennsylvania school districts with more black students got less funding. An older study found that districts in the Chicago area with more Hispanic students were especially likely to be financially disadvantaged.

“It’s such a compelling data point for why poverty is not a good proxy for race,” said Ary Amerikaner of Education Trust.

6. There’s no correlation between how much a state spends on schools and whether more dollars go to poorer schools. There’s no correlation between a state’s political leaning and how progressively education dollars are distributed, either.

States that spend the most aren’t necessarily the ones that give the biggest share of money to high-poverty schools, as the New York-to-Utah comparison underscores. There’s also no clear political pattern, at least based on how a state voted for president in 2016, though there is research showing that Democratic governors generally mean more money for higher-poverty districts.

School funding and politics
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state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.

First Person

Denver teachers are stepping up. It’s time for Colorado voters to do the same.

PHOTO: Kirsten Leah Bitzer

I’m a Denver social studies teacher, and I am striking today with my colleagues as we fight to make teaching in Denver schools a sustainable career.

Yes, it must be noted that Denver Public Schools is top-heavy, and more of the district’s funds should be directed toward professionals who have direct contact with students. But amid this pitched battle between district and union, it’s also important to realize that our current moment does not exist in a vacuum.

Twice in the last six years, we’ve watched ballot initiatives that would have significantly increased Colorado education funding fail. Amendment 73, which lost last fall, was projected to raise $1.6 billion a year. Much of this revenue would have gone to local districts, which could have boosted teacher salaries and added programming for students.

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights played a significant role in creating this situation, through its draconian limits on our representatives’ ability to raise additional needed funds and its requirement that ballot measures effectively be presented to the public with the costs as a headline and the benefits as a footnote.

But there are other forces at work here, too. Last year, the state’s Chamber of Commerce and business-oriented lobbying groups celebrated the demise of Amendment 73, the latest attempt to bring Colorado’s education funding to an appropriate level — even as some business leaders have expressed concern over the lack of fully prepared graduates.

The result? Denver Public Schools’ and the teachers union’s proposals are currently separated by $5 to 8 million. While our state’s $345 billion economy booms, we are fighting for scraps.

It shouldn’t be this way. An investment in teachers is an investment in our students, and in our civic and economic future. This is challenging, essential work that requires us to contend with competing answers to a recurring question: What is the purpose of schooling? As teachers, we work to balance many answers, from teaching our subject matter to instilling work skills, modeling interpersonal skills, developing citizens, and cultivating creativity.

As a social studies teacher, I’m driven to help my students understand the world as it is while also giving them the tools to reimagine it. So as my colleagues and I strike, I hope my students and my neighbors will think about what education activist Margaret Haley said 115 years ago.

“A grave responsibility rests on the public school teachers and one which no fear of opposition or misunderstanding excuses them from meeting,” she said. “It is to organize for the purpose of securing conditions that will make it possible for the public school, as a democratic institution, to perform its proper function in the social organism, which is the preservation and development of the democratic ideal.”

This is why we are organizing, today and in the future. We deserve pay that is commensurate with the demands of our work and a level of education investment that reflects the vital importance of our schools.

When the district and the union reach an agreement, which I am confident will happen soon, we will be closer to that goal — but we will not be there yet. Whereas teachers in West Virginia and Arizona were able to pressure their legislators to raise pay statewide, Denver teachers are stuck negotiating with a district starved of funding from above. Our state cannot endure this neglect forever.

The next time education is on the ballot, I hope Coloradans will invest in our students and our future.

Peter Wright is a teacher at Denver’s Northfield High School, serving students from Stapleton, Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, and beyond.