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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At what cost

Adams 14 looking for grants first, as it prepares to pay for an external manager

First grade students practice reading in Spanish in their biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary School in Adams 14. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

About to embark on a search for a manager to run its district, Adams 14 officials have been looking at how to pay for that external management.

Although the state ordered that the district hand over management to a third party, following years of low performance, the order doesn’t come with money. Many community members have been wondering where the funds will come from.

Sean Milner, the district’s executive director of budget, operations and construction, said the best guess district officials have right now is that external management could cost $600,000 per year.

The cost of the contract isn’t yet clear. It’s hard to even estimate the cost since Adams 14 is the first district the state Board of Education has ordered to seek outside management.

The actual cost won’t be pinned down until after a group is selected and a contract is negotiated. The district will call for proposals requesting to know the qualifications of interested outside groups, but those will not include the cost of their work. The Colorado State Board of Education must vote to approve the selected manager before the district proceeds with a contract.

It’s possible the district will get help, at least to cover a portion of the management costs.

Adams 14 officials already applied to the state for a grant of up to $200,000 per year. There are no guarantees that Adams 14 will get that money, as they are competing with other districts that need help improving.

Colorado Department of Education officials would not comment on applications under review, but said that districts like Adams 14 that are following State Board directives receive priority for what the state calls Transformation grant dollars.

Officials are also searching for other grants to cover another $200,000. If they are successful, that could leave about $200,000 for the district to cover.

District officials said they hope that by shifting money they might be able to free up enough money from the general fund, without having to make large budget cuts. Work on the budget for 2019-20 is just beginning.

And if need be, district officials said they have informally received the school board’s verbal approval to use some of the district’s $14 million reserves.

So far, officials have looked at other districts that have gone through similar contracts in Indiana and Massachusetts. Those districts are larger than Adams 14’s 7,500-student-district. In their estimates, Adams 14 officials are also considering there may be extra costs associated if a selected partner isn’t local. The possibility also exists that Adams 14 may choose a public entity such as a school district, (Mapleton has already expressed interest), and those contracts could cost less.

Community members have asked if certain district positions, especially that of the superintendent, will duplicates the job of the external manager. Board member Bill Hyde wondered at a public board meeting earlier this year if the district would be paying twice for the same work.

Just earlier this year, the Adams 14 school board raised Superintendent Javier Abrego’s annual salary to $169,125.

The school board, which retained ultimate authority to hire or fire anyone in the district, may have to consider district positions as it finalizes the 2019-20 budget. Or the external manager, once on board, could make recommendations about staffing.

The state order requires that the district’s contract with an external manager start by July, but district officials are planning for an earlier start, potentially in March or April.

If that happens, the district would amend the current school year’s $130 million budget to use curriculum funds to pay for the outside manager for the remainder of this school year.

Officials said they’re being conservative in new spending, given that whoever comes in to run the district soon might have new ideas about programs or curriculum.

“We’re not stopping anything we have in progress,” Milner said. Some teacher training for curriculum still has to happen, for instance, he said. “But if there were new items to put in place, at this time we’re kind of holding off.”

major grants

Tennessee’s turnaround district wins big chunk of $8.25 million grant for school improvement

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A student at Libertas School of Memphis spells out words next to pictures as part of his independent learning time at the Montessori school in the Frayser community. The school is one of 10 in the state awarded a new school improvement grant.

Ten schools throughout Tennessee that are academically behind are divvying up $8.25 million in new federal grants for school improvement, the state Department of Education announced Monday.

Each school will receive $275,000 per year over three years to total $825,000. Four schools in the state’s turnaround Achievement School District netted the competitive grants, which are going to be used for bolstering strong leadership, talent management, effective instruction, and student support.

The money will be a welcome boost to the state-run district, which is tasked with improving schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent academically. The grants give schools the flexibility to add staff members or new programs to areas that will help their students improve, which is especially helpful to the schools that serve students in low-income areas and have historically been under-enrolled and under-funded.

For Memphis Scholars Raleigh Egypt, the new funding will go toward reading intervention for its middle school students, and more behavior and social work support.

“We know that one of the biggest difference makers for our kids is the ability to read and read well,” said James Dennis, interim leader of Memphis Scholars. “The grant will be a steroid shot to our efforts to meet our kids where they are. It will also go toward additional wraparound services, behavior and social work support. It will help us get to the bottom of some of the issues preventing our students from learning at high levels.”

The schools awarded are:

  • Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, Achievement School District
  • Memphis Scholars Raleigh Egypt, Achievement School District
  • LEAD Neely’s Bend Middle School, Achievement School District
  • Libertas at Brookmeade, Achievement School District
  • Antioch Middle School, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Calvin Donaldson Elementary School, Hamilton County Schools
  • Orchard Knob Middle School, Hamilton County Schools
  • McKissack Middle School, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • McMurray Middle School, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • The Howard School, Hamilton County Schools

These grants are provided through Title I funds from the U.S. Department of Education and must be used to support schools on the state’s lists of academically struggling schools.

“It is imperative that we provide additional support to schools that serve our students who are furthest behind and believe it is important to allow districts the autonomy to leverage what works in their local schools,” outgoing Education Commission Candice McQueen said.

It’s significant that four of the 30 schools in the Achievement School District made it through the competitive statewide application, said Sharon Griffin, leader of the district and assistant commissioner for school turnaround.

It’s “a tremendous accomplishment for our district and our operators,” Griffin said. “It’s even more impressive to know that we are the one school district in West Tennessee to have schools that were approved.”

For Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary, the announcement of the new funding fell on the first day of school after three weeks of heating problems. Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, said it made the day even more of a celebration.

“This funding over three years is going to be huge for this school, as well as the other schools awarded for turnaround strategies,” White said.