Separate and unequal: how school funding differences happen, and how they handicap poor schools
One day in May, principal Lisa Mace stepped into the hallway on her way to a formal observation in one of 26 classrooms she supervises.
It was 9:57 a.m. at Panther Valley Middle School in Lansford, Pennsylvania. As the bell rang and classrooms emptied into halls, a sixth-grader insulted a fourth-grader — something about being “fat,” — which led to a fight and both were marched off to Mace’s office. She canceled the classroom visit and spent the next few hours reviewing closed circuit video of the fight, talking with the combatants and filling out forms.
“It’s a good thing there wasn’t a police report,” Mace said. “That would have taken most of a day.”
Mace would normally have referred the fight to an assistant principal, allowing her to focus on her primary job of overseeing teaching quality. But Panther Valley can’t afford an assistant principal — or even the cheaper “disciplinarian” to which some schools resort.
“Our budget is very small,” Mace said, “and the area doesn’t have much of a tax base. Our students struggle, and it’s hard to find the resources we need.”
With 63 percent of Panther Valley’s students eligible for free or reduced school lunch, one would think the school would get a funding boost from the state. But Pennsylvania’s school funding tilts heavily to local taxes, leading to stark inequities between rich neighborhoods and poor ones.
By one key measure, Pennsylvania has the most unequal school funding in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Last year the DOE calculated that states on average spend 15.6 percent less in the poorest quartile of school districts than they do in the wealthiest. Pennsylvania stood out with a 33 percent difference.
The Keystone State did pass a new school funding bill last week that should reduce this inequity, but gaps will endure because the state relies more on local school funding than other states.
In 2012, Pennsylvania funded just 36 percent of the average school district’s funds, ranking 44th in the country. The average state paid 44 percent, and 18 states paid over half.
“We are uniquely bad,” said Michael Churchill, a Philadelphia-based attorney who represents Panther Valley and several school districts in a lawsuit against the state, arguing that its school funding is both unfair and inadequate. “But we are not unique in having a problem.”
The Washington-based Education Trust reported last year that on average the highest-poverty schools in the U.S. received $1,200 less per pupil that the wealthiest districts. The fact that poor public schools get less money than their wealthier neighbors has long been a source of friction, though defenders of the status quo point to a longstanding American devotion to localized control of education.
In April, when Education Secretary John King sought to require states to equalize school funding within districts, he sparked a backlash from teacher unions and from members of Congress, who had specifically blocked that move in the bipartisan overhaul of federal education law signed by President Obama in December.
States are also battling over equity, with state courts in Kansas and Washington ordering overhauls of education funding, while last month the Texas Supreme Court openly called out for legislative funding reform but refused to dictate it from the bench.
In a world driven by easily accessible data, it’s becoming harder to keep spending inequities hidden. Pressure to equalize funding is being applied both by the federal government, by many state courts and by a public that is increasingly aware of disparities.
Panther Valley Middle School lies in Lansford, Pennsylvania, in the heart of America’s Rustbelt. It’s a beautiful area of rolling green hills, where family roots run deep but economic realities are hard. With little but anthracite coal to offer, the town’s population fell from a high of nearly 10,000 in the 1930 census to under 4,000 in 2010.
Wealth differences between neighboring communities can be stark. Just 20 miles down the road from Lansford is the Northwestern Lehigh School District, located in a comfortable bedroom community outside of Allentown.
Both Panther Valley and Northwestern Lehigh are rural districts with student bodies over 90 percent white, but differences are stark.
In 2011, just 9 percent of Northwestern Lehigh’s students qualified for free or reduced lunch, the standard metric of school poverty, compared to 63 percent at Panther Valley. On achievement tests, 96 percent of Lehigh’s fourth-graders were proficient on state math tests, against 65 percent of Panther Valley’s. And on high school math, 70 percent hit the target in Lehigh, compared to 46 percent in Panther Valley.
One might think that poverty and achievement gaps would motivate a state to invest more in the school that struggles. But because Panther Valley School District has low property values and no shopping malls, it spent $1,238 less per pupil in 2011 than Northwestern Lehigh, according to data from the New America Foundation.
That gap adds up to $2.1 million a year, and in a tiny district with just one elementary, middle and high school, that’s real money that could be used for an assistant principal to handle discipline, or better transportation, or more after-school mentoring.
Does funding matter?
How much would $2.1 million a year mean to Panther Valley? The evidence on this question is mixed and hotly disputed.
Fifty years ago this spring a group of scholars, commissioned by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, issued “Equality of Educational Opportunity,” widely known as the Coleman Report, a study of 3,000 schools and 600,000 students. It was the nation’s first systematic look at what is now called “the achievement gap,” laying out in exhaustive detail why schools with better socio economics did well, and why schools that were predominately low income and had a high population of minority students often underperformed.
While the Coleman Report diagnosed the problem, it offered few solutions, concluding that schools cannot overcome a child’s “background and general social context” and that “inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life.”
One of the key findings of the Coleman Report was that per pupil funding differences made no difference in student outcomes.
But that was 50 years ago. Since that time, there have been hundreds of studies, many suggesting that bad schools can improve with more resources. The consensus now is that spending more money per pupil can make a difference, but also that additional money is often poorly used and ineffective.
“It’s not that money can’t help,” said Jay Greene, a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas. “But simply raising teacher pay across the board or offering bonuses for teachers who earn master’s degrees does nothing for achievement. And when we hand extra money to a district, this is what they tend to do.”
But the argument for equality doesn’t rest on test scores alone, says Mike Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a center-right education think tank in Washington, D.C. Rather, it comes down to a fundamental sense of fairness.
“I can’t think of a lot of arguments against more equal funding,” Petrilli said. “Even as a small government conservative, it’s hard to argue that we shouldn’t be spending as much on poor kids as on rich kids.”
This spring, the Rutgers Graduate School of Education teamed up with the Education Law Center in Newark, New Jersey, for its annual national report card on state school funding. Pennsylvania got a “D” on funding distribution fairness.
The report found that some states took from the rich and gave to the poor. South Dakota, Delaware, Minnesota and New Jersey all gave their poorest districts between 30 and 38 percent more funds than their wealthiest districts.
Reverse Robin Hood states included Wyoming, Vermont and North Dakota, all of which gave 20 percent more to wealthy districts than poor ones. But the Sheriff of Nottingham was Nevada, which gave only 48 cents on the dollar to high-poverty districts compared to wealthier districts.
When legislatures do not equalize school spending, advocates often turn to the courts for solutions. Since 1971, lawsuits in 45 states challenged both funding inadequacy and inequity, and 28 states have had judicially ordered funding reform.
Notable current cases include Washington state, whose legislature has been held in contempt and fined $100,000 a day by its Supreme Court since last summer, and Kansas, where in February the Supreme Court ordered the state to equalize funding. And earlier this month the Texas Supreme Court shook up the Texas establishment when it declined to seize control of school funding, but emphatically urged legislators to fix a funding system it described as an “ossified regime ill-suited for 21st century Texas.”
These cases typically rely on clauses in state constitutions that require some form of fair and adequate school funding. In fact, many of these lawsuits now focus more on the total amount spent, or adequacy, rather than fairness in what is spent.
Just across the California border from Death Valley and the Mojave Desert, Sandy Valley School has struggled to get attention from Clark County School District in bustling Las Vegas. Seventy percent of classes at Sandy Valley are taught in portable classrooms, the school gym has a patchwork floor, and running water is often off, according to a 2015 piece in the Las Vegas Sun.
Clark County School District in Nevada has over 300,000 students, the fifth largest school district in the country, and it reaches from urban Las Vegas to the California border 50 miles away.
“It’s no child left behind, right?” one parent asked the Las Vegas Sun. “It shouldn’t matter if the kid lives in the city or in a rural town.”
Most funding inequity dialogue, including the Rutgers report just cited, focuses on differences between districts. But there is also enormous funding disparities within districts.
Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, has long argued for more focus on inequities within districts. Roza notes that nearly half of Texas students are in districts with at least 25,000 students, spanning wide ranges of socioeconomics and geography. In 2010, the 100 largest school districts in the U.S. each had at least 47,000 students.
As parents in Sandy Valley well know, funding within districts is quite unequal. A 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Education found that at least 42 percent of high-poverty schools had lower funding than low-poverty schools in their own districts. And at least 19 percent of high-poverty schools got more than 10 percent less money than low-poverty schools in the same districts.
Almost all the funding inequity within districts stems from more experienced teachers moving to cushier, wealthier schools. Seniority-based pay and the option to move to a nicer job are fiercely protected union prerogatives.
Districts are required to equalize funds to receive federal aid. But there is a loophole. As long as schools within a district have “comparable” curriculum offerings and staff — even if those staff members are less experienced and paid less — districts can spend more per child in wealthier schools.
This is not a result of differences in property taxes or other local funding, because school districts are the base unit for local funding. Funding inequities between schools within a district result largely from more experienced faculty moving to cushier schools, taking heftier salaries with them.
“Comparability” means that the federal government allows districts to ignore these large funding gaps that result from salary differences.
The resulting funding gaps are fiercely protected by a diverse coalition of interests, and changing the law would force wealthier schools to transfer or cut staff. In April, a coalition of teacher unions, school boards, superintendents, principals and governors signed a widely noted letter in opposing such a change by the department.
If districts were forced to equalize spending in their schools, Roza says, wealthier schools would have to weigh the cost of poaching experienced staff from poorer schools’ curriculum enrichment programs.
High-poverty schools within the district could use the more balanced funding to experiment with ways to help kids succeed, including after-school and summer programs.
With unions, state officials and small government conservatives lined up against using federal pressure to equalize funding within districts, and with the law itself clearly precluding it, it’s doubtful that the proposed regulations will be finalized, or would survive inevitable court challenges. And differences between districts also persist, despite ongoing state-level legal challenges.
In lieu of equalizing funding, the new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, offers greater transparency.
For the first time, under ESSA, schools and districts will be required to report school-level funding, rather than merely district averages. And, as Roza argues, it is between schools within districts that so many inequities are hidden.
So while the proposed Title I rules would do nothing to solve inequities at the Panther Valley School District, greater public focus on all funding inequities — both those within districts in Sandy Valley and those between districts at Panther Valley — might shift public opinion.
“Right now you need a Ph.D. to follow the data,” said Max Eden, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York City. Eden points to recent NPR reports on unequal funding by districts and by states. “When these things become common currency, the more public they become, the more political will there is to address them.”