America’s public school system today costs taxpayers over two-and-a-half times more that it did half a century ago—far outstripping changes in enrollment over that time. When federal, state, and local spending is taken together, it stands as one of government’s most-expensive endeavors… It’s clear, however, that K-12 advocates, politicians, the courts, and others over the years have raised expectations of what schools should provide and to whom, and that it takes money to meet those demands. Here are some significant milestones.
States’ spending to build, upgrade, and equip school buildings has fallen over the last decade, exacerbating budget challenges many schools already face, an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finds. Thirty-eight states cut school capital spending as a share of their overall economy between 2008 and 2017, according to the latest data available from the U.S. Census Bureau. “As a share of the economy, state capital funding for schools— for example, to build new schools, renovate and expand facilities, and install more-modern technologies—was still down 31 percent in fiscal year 2017 compared to 2008, when the Great Recession took hold,” Michael Leachman, senior director of state fiscal research at the progressive think tank, wrote in a blog post. “That’s the equivalent of a $20 billion cut.”
Across all 50 states, there are different ways in which states allocate K-12 funding to districts. Education Commission of the States has collected information on general funding model structure, base per pupil, special education, English language learner, at-risk, gifted and talented, and small school funding. In addition to identifying which states include mechanisms for base funding and special populations funding, this resource also provides information on how those mechanisms work. For example, how are states identifying at-risk students and making allocations to support them?
Twenty-five percent of respondents to a recent national poll identified “a lack of financial support” as one of the biggest problems facing public schools in their communities. The findings follow waves of teacher activism to push for more state funding, salary increases, and other policy changes. While many of those demonstrations saw broad support, the public hasn’t always put its money where its mouth is. In Los Angeles, for example, voters struck down a ballot measure that would have helped pay for changes teachers won through strikes in the nation’s second-largest school district. Where should that additional financial support come from? Seven in 10 adults and six in 10 teachers responding to the poll said they would rather see cuts in other government-funded services than tax increases.
In 2015, the most recent year for which national data are available, only 12 states allocated more funds to districts in which student poverty is high than to districts in which there is little or no poverty. And of these 12 states, only five — Delaware, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and Wyoming — also funded education at a level of adequacy that enables students to receive the resources they need. This article outlines steps that federal and state governments can take to make a difference in achieving greater equity and adequacy in school funding, including redesigning school finance formulas to focus on pupil needs, for example, through weighted student formulas that add additional funds for pupil characteristics such as poverty.
“We knew it going in, but we didn’t really understand how very local this work has to be,” said CEO of EdBuild Rebecca Sibilia. Every state needs a unique fix. Solutions have to be tailored to specific state funding policies. Each state has its own unique funding formula that dictates how it takes local and state tax revenue and divvies that money up among schools. What matters most when it comes to how much money districts have to work with is place. Districts are still heavily dependent on local property tax, and disparities exist mostly because many states have not managed to close the gap between property-rich and property-poor districts. Sibilia has pushed in recent years for states to rethink the way that districts’ lines, which she calls “gerrymandered,” are drawn.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos issued final guidance Thursday on how districts can comply with a rule that federal funds are used to supplement and not replace state and local dollars for education. The guidance says districts must show the methods they use to allocate state and local funds are “Title I neutral.” In other words, schools should receive all of the state and local funds they would receive if they were not Title I schools — but districts are not required to spell out which costs or services paid for with Title I dollars are supplemental. The new rule is intended to “reduce administrative burden, simplify compliance and promote effective spending,” according to the Department of Education press release.
Several Massachusetts superintendents are spending more money on schools that enroll mostly wealthy students than they are on schools that educate mostly poor students, even though the state designed its funding formula to do the exact opposite. And some schools are outperforming other schools even though they’re receiving significantly less money. That’s according to a new report by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. Three bills under consideration in the state legislature could provide significantly more money to districts. But the distribution methods and amounts vary widely. MBAE found that under the current system, districts such as Brockton, Chelmsford and New Bedford, distribute their money between schools in an inconsistent way that often is not targeted toward the state’s neediest students. That dynamic isn’t always the case, the group found. Many districts in the state distribute more money to schools with more poor students and many others distribute their money evenly between schools.
Despite years of states pumping more money into schools, at least 22 states plus Washington D.C., up through 2017, still had not reached pre-recession funding levels, according to the CBPP. In Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Nevada, Arizona and Florida, funding remains more than 10 percent below pre-recession levels, according to the study. The threat of another recession has school finance analysts warning districts to judiciously spend any extra money they get this year. Set aside money in an emergency fund, they advise, and think twice before giving teachers permanent raises that might be unsustainable.
The one-room schoolhouse may seem like a distant memory from U.S. history, but about 200 of them still exist today, including Wyoming’s tiny Valley Elementary School. It has only six students, but in Wyoming, education funding is redistributed so that students can have access to similar resources, no matter how small or remote their location. Many small schools across the country have closed in recent years due to state funding issues and population shifts. But in rural Wyoming, one school with just six students has so far survived. Wyoming spends between $15,000 to $18,000 per student per year in K-12 education. Among the top in the nation and maybe unique to Wyoming is the funding model that recaptures money from wealthy districts and redistributes those to school districts that are called entitlement districts.