School funding in America is unequal. As a nation, we spend less in the places with the highest percentages of low-income students — not just in states and districts, but also in the specific schools they attend. It’s hard to imagine any additional inequity built into this system, but a new analysis suggests that there is — funding disparities actually exist between classrooms within the same school.

A study of one, large urban district (not named in the report) examines how teacher salaries were divvied up among high school students and finds that the district spent 15 percent more to educate its higher-achieving students than its lower-achieving students, despite the district’s stated equity goals. Why was this happening?

  • Experience: In schools in this district, more experienced teachers were disproportionately assigned to advanced academic courses, as opposed to regular track courses. This meant that the students who were placed in advanced courses — those who tended to be higher-achieving to begin with — were taught by more experienced (and higher-paid) teachers.
  • Class size: Advanced courses in this district also tended to be smaller than regular track courses. This means that teacher salaries were spread over fewer students. It also means that students who needed the most support were being relegated to larger classes — a strategy that’s counterproductive if the goal is to close achievement gaps.

The good news is that schools have control over these types of within-school disparities. School leaders can monitor teacher assignments, checking that non-advanced classrooms are not disproportionately staffed by novice teachers. Schools can also examine their advanced course enrollment patterns and work toward greater racial and socioeconomic equity. Finally, schools can reduce disparities related to class size by working to increase the number of students who are ready to succeed in advanced courses.

We need to fix funding disparities at all levels of our education system. But schools need not wait for long legislative or judicial processes to rectify all types of inequitable funding patterns; they can start by reflecting on their own practices.