Now is the time to finally fix the inequity in public-school funding.
Our nation's minority and low-income students can't afford to wait any longer for the resources they need — something we have never given them. By underinvesting in our highest-needs students, we have allowed the achievement gap to persist despite knowing that a high-quality education is essential for success in the 21st century.
More than that, there is a particular reason why we must act right now: If we do, we could set the stage for substantial improvements in school-funding equity — using only new dollars.
We have long known that providing equitable resources for all children would require a substantial increase in funding to those districts and schools we have been short-changing — often minority and low-income communities. If the numbers from my organization's latest report are any indication, just providing equal funding for 90 percent of nonwhite schools would require an increase of $733 dollars per student. That's almost $440,000 for a school of 600 students.
But, the political will has never been there to support taking existing money away from the districts and schools receiving more than they need to provide additional funding to those receiving less. And so, despite calls for reform, the inequity in our system continues to persist.
The current recession has put normal increases in education on hold, but at some point the recession will end. When that happens, we will see an influx, hopefully a significant influx, of new education dollars — money not already allocated to any district or school. The question is how those new dollars will be spent.
If we act now to reform our systems and adopt equitable funding schemes, when our tax bases grow and revenues increase those new dollars will be spent to remedy rather than perpetuate inequity. If, instead, we do nothing, those dollars will merely flow through the same broken, unfair system that we've always had.
Fixing inequity in spending would require a two-pronged approach.
First, we need to end, once and for all, unequal spending between different districts. We've been talking about this problem for decades, yet in 39 states differences still range more than $1,000 per pupil.
Not all spending inequality is bad. The Center for American Progress supports spending more in districts with greater student needs. The problem is that too often disparities in spending are due to wealth and the ability to raise more money from local property taxes.
States have two options for reform: at a minimum, states should implement progressive state funding formulas that allocate resources through a weighted student funding system. Such systems ensure the districts that spend the most are those with the greatest student needs.
States truly committed to equity should follow Hawaii's lead and adopt a state-centralized system for education funding, like the one I propose in a forthcoming book. All public-school funding would come from the state and local property tax would be eliminated as a source. Schools would also be prohibited from raising more than 10 percent in additional funds.
The second prong of reform must address disparities in spending among schools in the same district. While this source of inequality has only recently been discovered, it accounts for 40 percent of spending inequality nationally. In states like South Carolina and Georgia, it accounts for more than 70 percent of inequality.
This inequality often stems from using a district's average teacher salary when calculating each school's budget. Teachers are not all paid the same; some teachers earn more than others, usually based on their experience.
When districts use the average salary instead of a teacher's actual salary, they cover up the fact that clusters of more-experienced teachers — often found at low-poverty or mostly white schools — pull more money to a school than that received by a same-sized school with less-experienced teachers. School funding disparities ensue!
The federal government currently endorses this inequality: Districts receiving federal funds for high-poverty schools are required to spend about the same amount of state and local money in high-poverty schools as in low-poverty schools.
But districts are prohibited from considering differences in teacher salaries when demonstrating this equality in spending. To fix this, the federal government should require districts to use the actual amount spend on teacher salaries at each school. This would require districts to provide truly equal resources to its high-poverty schools.
Beyond just equality, districts should embrace equitable funding and, like states, adopt a weighted student funding system for allocating resources to its schools. The schools serving children with greater need should receive more money.
To be sure, solely providing more money to low-performing schools will not lead to the progress we need. Money has to be spent wisely and productively for it to have the necessary impact. Often, this will require states, districts, and schools to implement reforms that go beyond those discussed above.
The fact that our school-funding systems are complex and the tasks of reform daunting does not mean we are, or should be allowed to act as if we are, helpless. Too many students are counting on us to act and now is the time to do it.
Cynthia G. Brown is vice president for education policy at the Center for American Progress. Brown has spent over 35 years working in a variety of professional positions addressing high-quality, equitable public education. She currently serves as a member of the Education Department's Equity and Excellence Commission.
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This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.