Show me the money

We read new reports on the state of school funding in America so you don’t have to. Here’s what we learned.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Education advocates rally outside of the building where Shelby County's Board of Commissioners meet to discuss funding for Shelby County Schools.

Utah spends about $7,000 per student in its public schools, but gives much more to schools with many poor kids. New York spends more than $18,000 per student, but doesn’t give extra money to high-poverty school districts.

What’s the right number, and who should get the most? The questions are at the heart of many of the heated battles in public education: In Detroit, teachers have complained about buildings that are falling apart, while lawsuits from Washington to New York to Kansas have led to protracted legal fights.

It makes sense to look closely at education spending, since several recent studies link more money in schools to better outcomes for students. But describing the state of school funding in the U.S. is tricky, since schools receive a combination of local, state, and federal dollars and because disparities can exist between states, between districts, and between schools.

That’s why we combed through three recent reports from the Education Law Center, Education Trust, and the Urban Institute, which help explain how big the school funding pot is and how that money is really divvied out.

What stands out is that while poor students necessarily don’t get less money than their affluent peers, they usually don’t get the extra money that funding advocates say is necessary for addressing additional needs. Here are some of the major takeaways.

1. A state’s high-poverty school districts usually don’t get more state and local money than its affluent districts.

In 20 states, both kinds of districts get about the same amount of money. In 12 states, more money went to impoverished districts. But in 16 states, more money actually went to wealthier districts, according to the Education Law Center report. (Alaska and Hawaii were excluded. And like the other reports in this piece, it uses data that are a few years old, in this case running through 2015.)

There were some notable outliers: New Jersey gives 20 percent more money to poor districts, for example, while Nevada gives poor districts 40 percent less.

Funding advocates say a flat distribution is nothing to celebrate, since there is evidence that poor students need more money spent on their schools to reach comparable outcomes.

2. High-poverty and low-poverty schools also tend to get about equal amounts of money from their districts.

Recent research has found that schools serving poorer students tend to get the same amount as, or even a tiny bit more than, other schools. But there are exceptions: in some of the least equitable districts, poor students and students of color get between $300 and $500 less than wealthier and white students.

Starting next school year, the federal education law requires states to report how much is spent at each individual school, which advocates are hoping to pressure districts with disparities to close them.

3. When you zoom out, things look worse for students in high-poverty schools, since they’re more likely to be located in states that spend less on education.

Spending disparities grow when you compare poor school districts nationwide to wealthier ones. Here’s why: poor students are more likely to live in states with weaker economies and that spend less on education.

For example, there’s a greater share of poor kids in Mississippi (which spends about $7,000 per student, according to the Education Law Center) than in Massachusetts (which spends about $15,000 per student).

Education Trust tried to quantify that disparity between states. The civil rights and education organization, led by former U.S. Education Secretary John King, found that American students in poor school districts get an average of about $1,000 less in state and local dollars than those in wealthier districts. This is also an important reminder that states spend widely varying amounts per student.

Bruce Baker, a Rutgers professor and the author of the Education Law Center report, said that gaps like these are concerning, though people should keep in mind that costs of living and other factors also vary. “When you start trying to compare nationally, you really have to find a way to thoroughly correct for a whole bunch of different cost factors,” he said.

4. But federal dollars generally do what they’re designed to do: make school spending more progressive.

The Urban Institute analysis shows that federal money — which accounts for only about 10 percent of total education spending — ensures that in almost all cases, poor districts end up with as much or more money than wealthier districts in the same state. (This doesn’t mean, though, that the federal dollars even out the disparities between states.)

5. When you sort schools based on race, school spending disparities are even worse than when you sort schools by income.

Most studies of school funding gaps focus on those between higher- and lower-poverty schools. But the Education Trust report also compared how states fund districts with more students of color versus those with more white students.

In many cases there were substantial differences: 11 states that sent more or the same to poor districts actually sent less to districts with more students of color (and only one was the reverse).

Another recent analysis found that, even controlling for poverty, Pennsylvania school districts with more black students got less funding. An older study found that districts in the Chicago area with more Hispanic students were especially likely to be financially disadvantaged.

“It’s such a compelling data point for why poverty is not a good proxy for race,” said Ary Amerikaner of Education Trust.

6. There’s no correlation between how much a state spends on schools and whether more dollars go to poorer schools. There’s no correlation between a state’s political leaning and how progressively education dollars are distributed, either.

States that spend the most aren’t necessarily the ones that give the biggest share of money to high-poverty schools, as the New York-to-Utah comparison underscores. There’s also no clear political pattern, at least based on how a state voted for president in 2016, though there is research showing that Democratic governors generally mean more money for higher-poverty districts.

School funding and politics


More than 1,000 Memphis school employees will get raise to $15 per hour

PHOTO: Katie Kull

About 1,200 Memphis school employees will see their wages increase to $15 per hour under a budget plan announced Tuesday evening.

The raises would would cost about $2.4 million, according to Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance.

The plan for Shelby County Schools, the city’s fifth largest employer, comes as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who had come to Memphis in 1968 to promote living wages.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson read from King’s speech to sanitation workers 50 years and two days ago as they were on strike for fair wages:

“Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life or our nation. They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation … And it is criminal to have people working on a full time basis and a full time job getting part time income.”

Hopson also cited a “striking” report that showed an increase in the percent of impoverished children in Shelby County. That report from the University of Memphis was commissioned by the National Civil Rights Museum to analyze poverty trends since King’s death.

“We think it’s very important because so many of our employees are actually parents of students in our district,” Hopson said.

The superintendent of Tennessee’s largest district frequently cites what he calls “suffocating poverty” for many of the students in Memphis public schools as a barrier to academic success.

Most of the employees currently making below $15 per hour are warehouse workers, teaching assistants, office assistants, and cafeteria workers, said Johnson.

The threshold of $15 per hour is what many advocates have pushed to increase the federal minimum wage. The living wage in Memphis, or amount that would enable families of one adult and one child to support themselves, is $21.90, according to a “living wage calculator” produced by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Board members applauded the move Tuesday but urged Hopson to make sure those the district contracts out services to also pay their workers that same minimum wage.

“This is a bold step for us to move forward as a district,” said board chairwoman Shante Avant.

after parkland

Tennessee governor proposes $30 million for student safety plan

Gov. Bill Haslam is proposing spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, both in schools and on school buses.

Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday proposed spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, joining the growing list of governors pushing similar actions after last month’s shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

But unlike other states focusing exclusively on safety inside of schools, Haslam wants some money to keep students safe on school buses too — a nod to several fatal accidents in recent years, including a 2016 crash that killed six elementary school students in Chattanooga.

“Our children deserve to learn in a safe and secure environment,” Haslam said in presenting his safety proposal in an amendment to his proposed budget.

The Republican governor only had about $84 million in mostly one-time funding to work with for extra needs this spring, and school safety received top priority. Haslam proposed $27 million for safety in schools and $3 million to help districts purchase new buses equipped with seat belts.

But exactly how the school safety money will be spent depends on recommendations from Haslam’s task force on the issue, which is expected to wind up its work on Thursday after three weeks of meetings. Possibilities include more law enforcement officers and mental health services in schools, as well as extra technology to secure school campuses better.

“We don’t have an exact description of how those dollars are going to be used. We just know it’s going to be a priority,” Haslam told reporters.

The governor acknowledged that $30 million is a modest investment given the scope of the need, and said he is open to a special legislative session on school safety. “I think it’s a critical enough issue,” he said, adding that he did not expect that to happen. (State lawmakers cannot begin campaigning for re-election this fall until completing their legislative work.)

Education spending already is increased in Haslam’s $37.5 billion spending plan unveiled in January, allocating an extra $212 million for K-12 schools and including $55 million for teacher pay raises. But Haslam promised to revisit the numbers — and specifically the issue of school safety — after a shooter killed 14 students and three faculty members on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida, triggering protests from students across America and calls for heightened security and stricter gun laws.

Haslam had been expected to roll out a school safety plan this spring, but his inclusion of bus safety was a surprise to many. Following fatal crashes in Hamilton and Knox counties in recent years, proposals to retrofit school buses with seat belts have repeatedly collapsed in the legislature under the weight the financial cost.

The new $3 million investment would help districts begin buying new buses with seat belts but would not address existing fleets.

“Is it the final solution on school bus seat belts? No, but it does [make a start],” Haslam said.

The governor presented his school spending plan on the same day that the House Civil Justice Committee advanced a controversial bill that would give districts the option of arming some trained teachers with handguns. The bill, which Haslam opposes, has amassed at least 45 co-sponsors in the House and now goes to the House Education Administration and Planning Committee.

“I just don’t think most teachers want to be armed,” Haslam told reporters, “and I don’t think most school boards are going to authorize them to be armed, and I don’t think most people are going to want to go through the training.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.