Persistent Inequities in School Funding: A Q&A with Natasha Ushomirsky
Today, Ed Trust released Funding Gaps 2015, a new report and online data tool, which compares local and state funding among school districts (1) with the highest and lowest poverty and (2) those that serve the most and the fewest students of color. The results show funding gaps continue to exist, and in some cases, in very big ways. I spoke with Natasha Ushomirsky, one of the authors of the report, to learn more about the findings.
Q: You’ve just released this new report about school funding. What did you find?
Natasha: What we found is that, nationally, the highest poverty districts receive about $1,200, or 10 percent, less per student in state and local revenues than the lowest poverty districts. Now, those per-child differences may not seem huge, but they really add up. Think of a middle school with about 500 kids, and we’re talking about a difference of $600,000 per year. When you’re talking about a high school of 1,000 students, that’s $1.2 million in missing resources.
In addition we also did a similar analysis looking at districts both nationwide and within states that serve the most students of color and the fewest students of color. Nationally, we found that districts that serve the most students of color are getting about $2,000 less per child in state and local resources than districts serving the fewest students of color.
Q: So which states are doing the best job of providing more resources to their highest poverty districts and districts serving the most students of color?
Natasha: Some of the most progressive states — so states that are providing more funds to their highest poverty districts — are Ohio and Minnesota. In both of those states, the highest poverty districts receive about 22 percent more in state and local revenues than the lowest poverty districts. When it comes to funding for districts serving the most students of color, Ohio (again) is one of the most progressive. Massachusetts is another state that provides substantially more resources to its districts that serve the most students of color.
Q: What states have the largest gap in funding between school districts serving the wealthiest students and those serving the poorest students?
Natasha: The biggest funding gaps that we found were in Illinois, where the highest poverty districts received nearly 20 percent less in state and local resources than the wealthiest districts. New York is another state where the highest poverty districts are getting substantially fewer funds. That’s followed by Pennsylvania, Texas, Maryland, and Michigan.
Q: And for students of color — which states have the largest gaps there?
Natasha: Some of the biggest gaps that we saw in that analysis were in Nebraska and North Dakota, followed by Illinois and Texas. It’s also worth noting that while there were six states that provided substantially less funding to their highest poverty districts, there were 18 that provided substantially fewer dollars to districts serving the most students of color.
Q: The report talks about the fact that it costs more to educate low-income students. Why is that?
Natasha: First off, because poverty puts all sorts of stressors on families and children, many low-income students start school academically behind their wealthier peers. This doesn’t at all mean that they can’t learn; on the contrary, it means that schools should help them learn even faster. And that requires additional resources — things like curriculum materials that help build background knowledge or vocabulary, for example, or extra time in school. Low-income students are also more likely to face additional challenges outside of school during their academic career. Districts and schools that have high numbers of kids in poverty may need additional resources — like liaisons who coordinate with other social service agencies, for example, or more school counselors — to help address some of these challenges.
Q: What lessons do you want our readers to take away from this new report?
Natasha: The gaps that we found in our analysis are not new. As a nation, we’ve been talking about inequitable funding for a long time. Thanks to court involvement in some states and a lot of advocacy by committed state and local activists, there’s been some progress on funding equity over the years. But what we’re finding is that in some states, these gaps still persist. And while money is not the only thing that matters for children’s success, funding inequities are foundational to all sorts of other inequities in our schools — things like the ability to pay teachers more, which can help attract the strongest educators to the schools that most need them, or to provide additional supports and enrichment opportunities for kids who may not have access to them to the same extent outside of school. So I think the main messages that we want folks to take away are that these inequities still exist, this problem is not fully solved yet, and it’s a problem that needs to be addressed.