The Education Law Center’s Annual Report Unveils Numerous Inequities
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Our district Superintendent recently provided us with some alarming news: as of January 2023, our district has no cash on hand and will need to take out loans to make payroll. Our small, urban district in the Twin Cities hasn’t passed a school levy since 2005. Teachers feel the effects of this funding shortage every day. We see a lack of school counselors, a shortage of social workers and substitutes, and deteriorating facilities. Our high-poverty district spends just $309 per pupil, while nearby districts spend over $2,000 per pupil. Although Minnesota has a good track record for education spending, there are still inequities in high-poverty districts where local taxpayers are left to fund their schools. Unfortunately, in a nation defined by state-determined funding, these inequities seem to be the norm, not the exception. A new annual report from the Education Law Center, “Making the Grade: How Fair is School Funding in Your State?” highlights which states are “making the grade” and which are failing their students.
Measuring education funding across the states
Each year, the Education Law Center (ELC) analyzes education funding by state and district to examine how equitable funding is across and within states. The United States has a unique education system where not only curriculum standards but also education spending is determined by state legislatures, creating an inequitable playing field to begin with. Three years ago, the pandemic further exposed the inequities both between states and within states. In 2020, many high-poverty districts were left with inadequate technology, facilities, and staff to address a serious health crisis. The 2022 ELC report asks, “Will states step up when federal COVID relief runs out?” The authors find that “it is likely that critical supports for low-income students paid for with federal dollars, such as extended learning opportunities, intensive tutoring, and greater access to mental health services, will fade away along with the masks and hand sanitizer.”
Furthermore, the ELC report breaks down how much each state spends on education and also how states distribute that money to districts. They divide their analysis into three “fairness measures:” funding level, funding distribution, and funding effort. For each category, states are given a grade. More than half of the states scored an F in at least one category, supporting the report’s thesis that schools and students experience unequal educational circumstances depending on their home state.
“Less than 50% of states are “passing” when it comes to education funding and equity, which means as a nation, we are failing our teachers, our students, and their families.” Do You Know Your State’s Fair Funding Grade? Click To Tweet
How fair is education funding in your state?
In the first fairness measure, the report finds that state funding is inequitable across the states. 92% of education funding comes from state and local revenues, so states and localities have an immense responsibility to provide schools and students with the money they need. Unfortunately, there is a drastic divide between dollars spent on education across states. The average per-pupil state funding level is approximately $15,000. Schools in New York, however, receive $26,000 per pupil. Schools in Arizona, the state with the lowest-ranked funding, receive just $10,000 per pupil. A map of a state’s relative funding level (figure 1b) shows further inequities across the nation. All states in the South scored a C or lower, according to the report, whereas northern states have higher funding levels across the board.
Next, the report pulls back the curtain on each state’s funding level to document how inequitable funding is within the state. To me, the “funding distribution” measure may be the most interesting because it measures “the extent to which additional funds are distributed to school districts with high levels of student poverty.” Some states like Utah, Wyoming, and Minnesota are considered “progressive” in the report because they allocate more funding for high-poverty districts than low-poverty ones. On the other hand, in “regressive” states like Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Nevada, students in high-poverty districts receive thousands of dollars of less funding than students in low-poverty districts.
Finally, the report encourages us to dig deeper to truly understand the convoluted, complex, and inequitable system of education spending we have in the United States. As we know to be true with our students, a basic letter grade does not tell the whole story. For example, you may work in a poorly-funded, high-poverty district in an otherwise progressive state. Or, your school may struggle to meet requirements for SpEd and EL students without state and district funds to adequately serve those populations. If you’re interested in looking deeper, I encourage you to explore the report’s graph in figure 2f, where you can break down the data by state and district.
It’s time for a fair funding improvement plan
As the semester draws to a close this January, I am laser-focused on the few students who are not passing my classes. As teachers, we utilize grades (however imperfect the system may be) to measure data and order to target students who need more support. We, too, are often graded as teachers by test scores, evaluations, and PLC data. If our administration deems that we haven’t “made the grade,” we are served improvement plans or professional development. But where is this same accountability for the states? Clearly, our current education funding system is not working, as demonstrated by the 27 states receiving Fs in at least one category. Less than 50% of states are “passing” when it comes to education funding and equity, which means as a nation, we are failing our teachers, our students, and their families.
So who is offering these states an “improvement plan”? Who is holding these lawmakers accountable to create more fair and robust education spending? The last section of the ELC report notes that “there is growing evidence that the fight to preserve and strengthen public education is gaining steam in the states.”
In 2022, grassroots organizing helped pass ballot measures to earmark funds for education in numerous states. Additionally, pro-education candidates were elected to key positions during the recent midterms. Here in Minnesota, Democrats control congress for the first time in a decade, and there is already a bill on the House floor to discuss education finance and fully fund Special Education services. As is far too often the story, it’s up to educators to lobby for more (and more equitable) school funding and for voters to hold lawmakers accountable. Otherwise, these systemic funding inequities will persist and continue to negatively impact the realities we face in the classroom each day.
Kristen Sinicariello is currently in her seventh year of teaching at a high school in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As a Social Studies teacher, she is passionate about taking a diverse approach to history while helping students unpack bias in a rapidly changing world. Before stepping into the classroom, Kristen spent time as an outdoor educator and wilderness guide, and continues to find most of her opportunities for learning and personal growth in the outdoors. Currently she also keeps busy as a girls soccer coach, a union communications leader, and a Social Justice Club supervisor.
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