Achieving Educational Equity: A Closer Look at School Finance

Here is the second installment in our series on achieving educational equity.

In a previous article, I outlined three principles for “doing educational equity right”:

1. Rather than bringing down everyone to the same level, we should aim to raise the bar for all.

2. Our focus should be on closing the achievement gap between privileged students and their less advantaged peers, not between high-achieving and low-achieving students.

3. When it comes to equity initiatives, class should take precedence over race.

By adhering to these principles, we can not only develop effective education policies but also gain support from the political right.

Now let’s apply these principles to the issue of school finance.

In many ways, this is the simplest issue to find common ground on across the political spectrum. Despite the assumption that conservatives would be against redistributing resources from affluent areas to disadvantaged ones, most right-of-center reformers actually support the idea. The caveat, however, is that they want to ensure the money is used effectively. Many of us have long advocated for “weighted student funding,” which recognizes the need for additional resources for disadvantaged students to meet high standards. The idea is that funding should follow the child to their school of choice. It’s not just about equalizing funding; high-poverty schools require more funding per student than affluent schools. In other words, we need to “level up.”

(Adapted from this image by medium.com/@CRA1G)

Fortunately, as my colleague Adam Tyner argued in Fordham’s Think Again series last year, America’s current approach to school funding is already quite progressive compared to the past. It has largely succeeded in equalizing resources between rich and poor schools, a significant departure from the “savage inequalities” described by Jonathan Kozol. But Adam contends that we should move toward even greater progressivity in our system. If those on the political left want conservatives to support this agenda, they must adhere to principles two and three. Specifically, greater progressivity in funding should be based on students’ socioeconomic status, not their achievement level or race.

As I mentioned in my previous article, there is no valid moral argument for focusing solely on low-achieving low-income students while neglecting high-achieving low-income students. Both groups face poverty-related disadvantages that hinder their full potential, and both rely on the K-12 education system to help them succeed. Similarly, it is illogical to argue for allocating more funds to schools serving middle-class Black or Hispanic students than to those serving low-income White or Asian students.

Emphasizing students’ socioeconomic status makes sense morally, politically, and educationally. It is a simple fact that it requires more resources to support low-income students in reaching their academic potential. This is partly because addressing the needs of disadvantaged students, such as providing mental health supports for those who have experienced trauma, incurs additional costs. However, the primary reason for increased spending on low-income students is the labor market for teachers. Research shows that teachers are generally less willing to work in high-poverty schools. They may be deterred by long commutes to low-income neighborhoods, concerns about behavioral challenges, or the recognition that students facing disadvantage require teachers who are willing to work harder and employ more effective strategies. When teachers receive the same pay regardless of the school they work in—common practice in the majority of American school districts—we end up with a situation where high-poverty schools, on average, have lower-quality teachers than affluent ones.

There are a couple of ways to address this issue, both of which require significantly higher funding for high-poverty schools. One approach involves ensuring that high-poverty schools receive substantial additional revenue through state and local funding formulas, enabling them to offer higher salaries to attract and retain teachers. Another strategy is for districts to adopt pay initiatives similar to those implemented in Dallas or Washington, D.C., where highly effective teachers are offered significantly larger salaries to teach in the most impoverished schools. Ineffective teachers in those schools should be transferred elsewhere or, ideally, encouraged to leave the profession.

Now, let’s be realistic: Many of us on the right are skeptical of increasing spending for traditional public schools. We have witnessed countless examples of taxpayer money being wasted by these schools. Additionally, high-spending states like New York and New Jersey prove that substantial funding alone does not fix dysfunctional education systems. Our skepticism arises because we know that powerful unions often prioritize securing across-the-board raises, generous benefits packages, and retiree healthcare for their members, instead of directing funding to high-need schools or teachers willing to work in them. To gain conservative support, progressives need to embrace initiatives that come with a quid pro quo. Once state policies level the playing field by equalizing funding between rich and poor districts, any additional funding for low-income schools should be tied to competitive grants that require significant reforms. Districts should agree to implement strategies that recruit and retain highly effective teachers in their neediest schools through differential pay. They should also work with unions to ensure that ineffective teachers in those schools either find different professions or are transferred elsewhere.

What progressives should not do is frame the school funding debate around race or advocate for allocating additional funds solely based on students’ achievement levels, as Governor Newsom is doing. These approaches fail to address the root causes of inequity effectively.

If those on the left are willing to push for serious reforms in exchange for increased funding, conservatives will be more open to redistributing resources in the pursuit of greater equity. This approach would benefit both sides.

Michael J. Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and an executive editor of Education Next.

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

The post Doing Educational Equity Right: School Finance appeared first on Education Next.

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