As we head to the polls to vote in our next president, education advocates, like me, are still wondering why neither major candidate has made equitable funding for America’s most vulnerable children, a top priority.
America has failed her poorest children for a long time. It’s no wonder that its citizens have brought lawsuits challenging state methods of funding public schools in 45 of its 50 states.
On average, states provide 45.1 percent of total education funding, while local districts contribute 44.8 percent. In some states, the difference between state and local contributions is much larger. In Vermont, for example, the state covers 87.3 percent of education funding, while local districts shell out only 4.8 percent. On the other hand, districts in Illinois give the second highest contributions in the nation, behind Washington, D.C., supplying 59.1 percent of the funding, while the state covers just 32.5 percent.
The disparity in education spending between each state’s richest and poorest school districts ranges from -33.5 per cent in Pennsylvania to 17.1 per cent in Indiana. The average for the United States is -15.6. Negative percentages mean that students in the state’s poorest school districts get fewer dollars per pupil than students in the state’s most affluent districts. Positive percentages mean that students in the poorest districts get more dollars per pupil. Colorado, Iowa and Utah provide about the same funding in its poorer districts as it does for its wealthier districts.
Needless to say, but important in every school funding lawsuit is the fact that often, when school funding is cut, services and programs for a district’s most vulnerable students are the first to go. So, by the time a lawsuit is brought against a state, in most cases, the poorest children have already suffered through years of reduced services that equates to having no nurses, counselors, art classes and music teachers. Normally, it is only when resources are removed from schools with more affluent families that the shortfall is even discussed by “education advocates,” politicians and educators.
A fair funding formula is needed to ensure that the most vulnerable (poor, disabled and English language-learners) students get and keep the largest percentage of federal, state and local educational dollars because it costs more to educate these children. Sadly, in Pennsylvania, school districts with the highest poverty rate receive one-third fewer state and local tax dollars, per pupil.
Former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said:
In many places, we have school systems that are separate and unequal. Money by itself is never the only answer but giving [children] who start out already behind in life, fewer resources is unconscionable and it is far too common.
School districts across the country receive federal Title I funding to ensure that low-income, low-performing students are provided with additional resources to help them perform better academically. At least one percent of each district’s Title I funds must be used on activities to increase family engagement, raise awareness and help improve interactions between school-based staff and the community served.
While education funding disparities exist from state to state and district to district, they exist within districts, too. Students of color and low-performing students are disproportionately taught by inexperienced, under-qualified teachers.
As we look to the courts to equalize and fairly fund education across this nation, let us remind the presidential candidates of Arne Duncan’s words:
Federal spending was never intended to equalize funding for poor children. It was meant to add more money for poor children—recognizing that English Language Learners, disabled and poor children need more resources. This money was about trying to get that money to those we all know need it.
The nation’s voters are watching and waiting.