The word equity gets tossed around a lot in education circles, particularly around school finance.
We all know that some states, some districts, some schools, and some types of schools spend more per student than others. And in many cases those patterns correlate with the affluence of the communities that schools serve: schools serving wealthier communities often have more to spend, schools serving poorer communities have less.
The Candidates Are Mum
There are few hints on how the two major party tickets view school funding equity. Donald Trump’s campaign is silent on the issue of funding equity and education equity more generally, though he identifies education as a vague priority on his “issues” page.
And while Hillary Clinton’s education positions include equity-oriented statements around ensuring that all students have equal access to resources like great teachers, she offers no specific policy plans for doing so. Nor does her campaign address school funding, other than a vague reference to increased teacher pay.
Given that around 90 percent of school funding is directed by state and not federal policy, this lack of specifics about school funding is probably appropriate in a presidential campaign.
You Can’t Talk Equity Without Talking Teachers
But Clinton’s focus on the equitable distribution of great teachers touches on one of the key challenges of school funding reform: the disconnect between the way schools are funded and the way key resources, like teachers, are deployed.
How does funding equity relate to the distribution of teacher talent?
Most districts set school budgets based on the operating costs of the school (funding required to pay the teachers and other staff, buy supplies, etc.). Salaries drive the bulk of school budgets (around 80 percent on average), and the vast majority of districts pay teachers based on a salary schedule that considers years of experience and training.
So in a district budgeting process that doles out dollars based largely on who is employed in each school, those schools with more experienced staff receive more funding.
We know that schools serving higher needs students tend to have less experienced and often less effective teachers. It stands to reason that in districts where schools serving higher-need students receive less funding, the allocation of experienced teachers may be at least partly to blame.
Step One, Focus on the Students
Critics of these district budgeting processes note that they largely ignore students, by funding primarily teachers without factoring in the instructional needs of a particular school’s students. A proposed solution is for districts to transition to student-based budgeting. Under a student-based budgeting model, funds flow based not on human and capital resources, but on the students who attend each school.
Through a structure mirroring many state school finance formulas, districts fund schools based on the number of students, and increase funding based on student characteristics associated with higher cost instructional needs, such as limited English proficiency, low income, or special education needs.
If the district chooses the right characteristics to weigh more heavily, then resources are directed proportionally to where student needs are greatest. It protects against funding driven by special interests or politics. It also naturally adjusts to shifts in student demographics among schools, while traditional budgeting processes may react slowly.
And, in fact, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) includes a pilot program to support states and districts in transitioning to student-based budgeting—which makes this very local school funding issue relevant on the national stage.
The Problem Lingers
But while addressing funding inequity by tying dollars to students might move more money to schools serving high-need kids, it won’t move the best teachers to those schools on its own.
Most districts manage teacher hiring and placement, sometimes with input from school principals and sometimes not. Assignments often factor in seniority, favoring the preferences of more experienced teachers over less experienced ones.
And research shows that as teachers gain experience, they tend to move to higher-achieving schools serving fewer low-income students.
This system of teacher assignment rarely, if ever, considers the individual strengths of a teacher and how well those strengths match the needs of a particular school. At a recent event at Georgetown University focused on school finance, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted that not one district in the country strategically allocates its best teachers to its highest-need classrooms.
In what other industry do leaders not tap their most able employees to tackle their toughest challenges?
The next administration will have a chance to influence school funding equity through its implementation of ESSA. But what will that administration do to tie funding equity to a means of deploying teacher talent that ensures that every school has a cadre of great teachers?
Ensuring that funds are allocated fairly and directed proportionally where they are needed is a critical step and a necessary condition for achieving real equity in education—but it’s not enough. With the realities of teacher allocation, addressing funding allocation will only get us so far.
Funding equity without also making sure schools serving high-need kids have the best teachers is hardly equity.