Adequate and Equitable School Funding: Are These Goals Unreachable in America?

As we begin another school year, here is a review of an unexciting but essential subject: the basics of school finance. While many of our legislatures don’t seem to be dealing with this subject much these days, and in many states there just isn’t enough money because taxes have been slashed, we do need to keep some basic concepts in mind.  Two principles are key: adequacy and equity.

  • Adequate school funding involves two questions: “How much is enough?” and “Are we spending enough?”Adequacy of school funding is part of state budget debates as well as discussions of the school formula.
  • Equitable school funding involves this question: “Are we distributing state—and to a much smaller degree, federal funds—to compensate for local school districts’ very uneven capacity to generate school revenue?  Equitable school funding depends on distribution formulas—the state school finance formulas set up to meet the requirements of the 50 state constitutions, and the much smaller federal Title I formula, which distributes a relatively small amount across all the states.

In a recent report, the Senior Director of State Fiscal Research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Michael Leachman demonstrates that, in the summer of 2018, funding of public schools remains inadequate in a number of states: “Some 47 percent of school funding comes from states.” “Nationally, combined state and local funding for K-12 schools has finally recovered from deep cuts made during the Great Recession, but some states still haven’t restored funding…. At least 12 states have cut ‘general’ or ‘formula’ funding—the primary form of state support for elementary and secondary schools—by 7 percent or more per student since 2008 before the recession took hold.  Seven of these states have also cut income taxes over the last decade, making it particularly hard for them to raise revenue needed for their schools. (Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina and Oklahoma.)”

Leachman continues, examining trends in local school district funding: “Some 45 percent of school funding comes from localities…. Local funding per student fell in 19 states between the 2008 and 2016 school years… after adjusting for inflation.”

Leachman adds a further statistic related to inadequate funding, a fact which ought to be alarming: “The number of school workers—including teachers, librarians, nurses, and other staff—has fallen by about 158,000 since 2008, even as the number of enrolled children has risen by about 1.4 million.”

Recently, for example, it was reported that in cash-poor Arizona’s public schools, the number of school counselors per student has fallen to an alarming level, according to new data from the American School Counselor Association. The Arizona Republic reports: “Arizona worst in nation: Arizona’s student-to-school-counselor ratio is the highest in the nation, averaging 903 students to every one counselor in public schools in the 2015-16 school year…  Arizona held a 743-1 ratio a decade ago, but climbed as high as 941-1 in the post-recession years before slowly improving… The improved ratio—still more than three times the recommended number—has been a sticking point for Arizona’s March for Our Lives student and #RedForEd teacher movements… The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250-1…. Only New Hampshire, Wyoming and Vermont had ratios within that range…. Michigan comes closest to Arizona with a 744-1 ratio. The national average is 464-to-1.”

In July, in a brief for the Learning Policy Institute, the Rutgers University school finance expert Bruce Baker confirms that the most important, and incidentally the most expensive, school investments are for teachers, counselors and other school staff who serve children.  Baker focuses on teachers: “Greater overall investment in education typically results in more intensive staffing per pupil and/or more investment in teacher salaries. Investments in more and higher quality teachers are, in turn, related to higher learning outcomes for all children.” “Increased funding tends to lead to reduced class sizes as districts hire more teachers, and to more competitive teacher salaries.  A significant body of research points to the effectiveness of class size reduction for improving student outcomes and reducing gaps among students, especially for younger students and those who have been previously low achieving.  Often studies find that the effects of class size reduction on achievement are greatest when certain smaller class thresholds (such as 15 or 18) are reached, and are most pronounced for students of color and those in schools serving concentrations of students in poverty.”

Federal funding, which comprises only 8 percent of all dollars spent on public education, has fallen over the past decade—a fact that signifies inattention by Congress and recent administrations not only to the need for adequate funding but also to its equitable distribution. Funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, because it is a huge federal mandate, affects the general fund budgets of the nation’s 13,506 public school districts. When IDEA was passed in 1975, Congress promised to cover 40 percent of the cost, but the federal government has never paid more than 19 percent.  The federal government’s other primary role in funding K-12 schools—Title I—is intended to promote equity—to compensate to some degree for the fact that when state and local funding are combined, more money continues to flow to the schools serving children in wealthy communities and not to the nation’s poorest schools.  Always underfunded, Title I has fallen even further behind over the past decade. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Michael Leachman explains: “The largest federal education program, ‘Title I’ funding for high-poverty schools, is 5 percent below its 2008 level after adjusting for inflation.”

In  an earlier brief last February, Bruce Baker describes the plight of the local school districts serving society’s poorest children: “Most states fall below the funding levels necessary for their highest poverty children to achieve the relatively modest goal of national average student outcomes.  High-poverty school districts in several states fall thousands to tens of thousands dollars short, per pupil….  In several states—notably Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama and California—the highest poverty school districts fall as much as $14,000 to $16,000 per pupil below necessary spending levels… Only a handful of states—including New Jersey and Massachusetts—are doing substantially better than others in terms of the average level of funding provided across districts in each poverty quintile.”

In an extraordinary book, Final Test, California’s Peter Schrag quotes a deposition from a high school student as part California’s Williams school funding court case. The book was published in 2003, but Alondra Jones’ deposition continues to speak to a society where school funding inequity remains the norm.  A student at San Francisco’s Balboa High School, Jones had recently visited Marin Academy, a better funded school, and she describes the difference:

“You know what, in all honesty, I’m going to break something down to you. It makes you feel less about yourself, you know, like you sitting here in a class where you have to stand up because there’s not enough chairs, and you see rats in the building, the bathrooms is nasty…. Like I said, I visited Marin Academy, and these students, if they want to sit on the floor, that’s because they choose to. And that just makes me feel less about myself because it’s like the state don’t care about public schools…. And I already feel that way because I stay in a group home because of poverty. Why do I have to feel like that when I go to school?” (Final Test, p. 21)