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ESSA

We're About to Get a Whole New Way to Look at School Funding Fairness

Although my daughter has now completed college, Labor Day still evokes back-to-school memories: buying school supplies, first-day nerves and excitement, meeting new teachers and greeting friends old and new. 

Yet back-to-school is bittersweet for many children and families who happen to live in the “wrong” ZIP code—that is, in school attendance zones, districts and states with underfunded schools. For many historical reasons, the “wrong” ZIP code for school funding too often coincides with neighborhoods having large shares of children of color. 

What do these lesser funds in “wrong” ZIP code neighborhoods look like? Newspaper headlines tell us about outdated textbooks, leaky roofs and inadequate technology. But the effects of underfunding appear in more subtle ways, too. They show up in schools with greater numbers of brand-new and uncertified teachers, who are generally less effective than their more experienced and certified colleagues. They also show up in schools that don’t offer key STEM courses, like calculus. All these examples just skim the surface of the myriad ways too little money for schools holds back kids from those “wrong” ZIP code neighborhoods.

What does this inequity mean for students? Most obviously, it contributes to White-Black and White-Hispanic test-score gaps in reading and math. While these gaps have narrowed somewhat over the past forty years, they still remain significant. 

Underfunding can also contribute to disparities by race and gender in suspensions and expulsions. Under-resourced schools with more children of color are more likely to have inadequate numbers of counselors and less staff training to address behavior issues through effective alternatives. Again, those are just a couple of examples.

We’re Talking About Big Bucks

A lot of information has been coming out to shine a spotlight on the unjust ways we send money to states, districts and schools, which can fuel us all to do more to eliminate them.

For example, if you’re wondering how much money we’re talking about, a recent study found that predominantly White school districts have access to $23 billion more in state and local funding compared to majority non-White districts. Disparities exist between one state and another, between one district and another within a state, and between one school and another within the same district. 

The first two types of disparities—between states and between districts—have been well-documented, especially over the past two years by very smart colleagues at a number of organizations: Education Trust, EdBuild, The Education Law Center, Rutgers University, the Learning Policy Institute, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, among others. 

All this information has had some real effects, too. Advocates in many states are working to increase state funds for schools and allocate resources more fairly. Many of those advocates are members of the Education Civil Rights Alliance. They are using all of the tools in the toolbox to fight for just and equitable school funding: policy advocacy, research, communications, legal strategies and grassroots organizing. Perhaps most notably, school funding lawsuits in many states have made an impact. 

The many strategies for increased and more equitable funding have yielded some significant successes, but need to grow, since we’re still so far from even where pre-recession education funding levels were in a number of states—and that’s quite far from achieving needed sufficiency and equity in education funding. You can help amplify the need for greater and more equitable state funding in your state.

The Next Frontier for Fair Funding

But what about funding inequities among schools within a particular district? We’re about to know a lot more. There’s important new information coming out now to shine a spotlight on these intra-district school funding inequities. 

The overhaul of federal K-12 education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act created a little-known requirement for states and districts to collect and publish per-pupil expenditures for every single public school in the United States. Some of this information has already been published—you can check it out here. As required by the feds, this year’s state school report cards will present even more information, based on data from the 2018-19 school year. 

So what’s next? As more data becomes available, the Education Civil Rights Alliance and like-minded organizations will be exploring the data and raising awareness. For example, we hope to highlight districts leading the way toward equity for all their schools. That means we will showcase districts that provide greater resources for schools with greater proportions of higher-need students, including children with disabilities, economically disadvantaged children, English Learners, and other high-need groups. 

We also expect to flag some districts in which stark inequities are on display. That’s where you come in. We’ll need folks to help us find the districts where schools are funded unfairly. We’ll need people who are willing to amplify the call for greater fairness in funding: school by school, district by district and state by state. With fairer funding in place, schools can do better for kids.

Together, we can create a country where children’s success in education—and in life—is no longer dependent on the ZIP code where they grow up.

Miriam Rollin
Miriam A. Rollin, J.D. directs the national Education Civil Rights Alliance and serves as an attorney for the National Center for Youth Law.

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