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Is U.S. Public School Funding Fair?

By Jill Anderson on October 20, 2014 1:19 PM

The current system of public-school funding isn’t fair and needs to be made more equitable, agreed the panelists at the October 8 Askwith Forum, “Is U.S. Public School Funding Fair?” Despite an increased push from the federal government for higher performances by both teachers and students, many districts continue to struggle with how best to manage financial resources in equitable ways that will lead to improved outcomes.

“This isn’t just an esoteric dollar problem. You can draw a straight line … between unfair funding, serious resource deficiencies, particularly in high-poverty schools and districts across the country and low outcomes,” said David Sciarra, executive director at Education Law Center.  “This is at the heart of, I would argue, why [for us] as a nation it has been so difficult — particularly since the era of standards-based education — to get any real progress.”

The forum, moderated by Susan Eaton, Ed.M.’93, Ed.D.’99, research director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, explored the study, Is School Funding Fair?A National Report Card. Particular emphasis was placed on how inequitable funding for public schools can hamper efforts to boost academic outcomes and improve achievement among vulnerable student populations, as well as on exploring what could be done to change it.

“It’s not just about wealth, but [about] the effort a state makes,” said Bruce Baker, professor at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education, who outlined the ways in which the U.S. funding system is suffering. States with the most money don’t always necessarily perform the highest, said Baker, unless there is an overarching investment in how and why the funding is spent. The root of the problem in many states includes changing demographics and increased outcome demands that are rarely matched with increased funding, he said.

Despite increased funding through the Race to the Top program, many states still don’t have proper support to implement the changes required to achieve higher standards.

“What we haven’t done, except in a few places, is [determine] the actual cost to achieve what’s being prescribed,” Sciarra said. The lack of funding in many states to support federal mandates can exasperate an already unfair funding mechanism for most districts.

Some states attempt to redistribute funds from within their overall budgets. This, noted Professor Andres Alonso, was helpful during his time as deputy chancellor of New York City Public Schools where the school budget rose from $11 billion to $17 billion. “In some places, [state budget redistribution] does lead to extraordinary changes,” Alonso said.

In some cases, districts, advocacy groups, and parents turn to the law to help mitigate ongoing unfairness in funding and education. As part of David Hinojosa’s work as the Southwest regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, he has helped communities and parents to fight for more fairness. Though, he noted, even in successful cases, law can’t fix all problems; inequity of revenue generated by taxes in lower income communities versus more affluent communities is one issue that some states do not fix.

As far as solutions to school funding issues, Sciarra offered one suggestion: Call on the federal government to help level the playing field. He suggested that the federal government offer incentives to states to fix their funding systems and in turn gets schools on the right track.