Blog: The Educated Reporter

How to Get Dollars to Schools That Need Them

"Covering the Economics of Education," April 20, 2015.

At a speech in December, Janet Yellen, the chair of the Federal Reserve, took the United States to task for the way it funds schools.

“Public education spending is often lower for students in lower-income households than for students in higher-income households,” she told the audience at the Conference on Economic Opportunity and Inequality, in Boston.

Those words came up again at a panel discussion at the Education Writers’ Association’s 68th National Seminar held last month in Chicago. Quoted by moderator John Fensterwald of EdSource, the statements set the tone for the discussion of how to fund schools fairly.

Over the past decade, the gap between the nation’s richest schools and its poorest has grown. Natasha Ushomirsky, a panelist and a senior data analyst for the Education Trust, explained that the districts with the highest percentages of low-income students receive, on average, roughly 10 percent less funding than those with the lowest percentages. A similar pattern is present for districts with high percentages of minority students. That difference has been exacerbated by state legislature infighting and the 2008 economic downturn. Many states cut funding for schools, thanks to tighter budgets. Poorer districts, which are typically more reliant on state dollars, saw bigger drops than richer ones.

Along with higher rates of unemployment and wide wealth gaps, the recession also meant that the families least able to compensate for opportunities saw cutbacks to things like field trips, art classes and sports.

“Parents have less dollars in their pockets to supplement what’s happening in schools,” said Kim Anderson of the National Education Association.

But trying to change schools’ financial situation is rarely a simple task. If there isn’t much money in the system in the first place, it’s hard to find ways to reallocate it well.

“Some of this comes down to putting more money in the system,” said Anderson. “These fights get a lot easier when there’s more money on the table.”

According to an analysis by the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 30 states in 2014 spent less per student than they did in 2007.

Court cases in places like Kansas have attempted to force states to infuse more dollars. Many litigants have been successful in persuading there should be more money fairly distributed. But  judges struggle to enforce their decisions.

“Courts have proven that they don’t have sufficient influence to make them make the changes to come into compliance,” said David Plank, the executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a Stanford-based research project.

That leaves the decision-making primarily in the hands of state legislatures, which are often too gridlocked to produce substantial overhauls. In California, where Gov. Jerry Brown has pushed aggressively for changes to school funding, formulas were based on levels unchanged for nearly two decades until 2013.

“The legislature was the one party in California that liked the formula because there were lots of levers to push to put money towards pet causes,” said Plank. In California, change was only put in motion due to political maneuvering from the governor. The result was school funding legislation that favored schools with low-income, minority and disabled students and allowed schools more say in how money is spent. [For more on California’s new funding formula, see this primer produced by education news outlet EdSource]

But court decisions can also play a role in forcing state legislative bodies to overcome their stagnation.

“Courts can create the urgency and help the legislature roll up their sleeves,” said Marguerite Roza, the director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. In Washington, the court’s mandate to improve school funding has forced the Legislature into an extended budget battle and prompted voter initiatives.

The panelists suggested some further questions and story ideas for reporters to pursue in their home districts:

  • Schools in California increasingly rely on volunteers to run key parts of the school program. As huge resource disparities are getting worse as the support staff decreases, look at nonofficial sources of revenues in your coverage zone.
  • Go beyond how much money is going to schools by looking at how is that money being distributed, who’s benefiting from the new dollars, what it’s spent on it, and how are those revenue streams how affecting students.
  •  Find two schools that are spending the same amount of money with similar kids but have different outcomes. Compare the expenditures of each school and spot the spending priorities.
  • If there is any private sector involvement in delivery or governance of the school system, who makes the decision? Is it audited? Does a public body vote on it?