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How to Narrow Education Spending Gaps

Any independent observer of educational opportunity in the U.S. could identify three glaring and generally ignored sources of education resource disparities that favors the well-to-do: disparities between states, within states, and within districts. We believe the federal government could play a substantial role in motivating and supporting progress toward equity in all three areas. The role would call for new activities and resources from the Department of Education.

Disparities Between States: A serious move toward equalizing resources among states, controlling for effort and wealth, would help accelerate equal opportunity across the nation for many low-income students of all races. In 2016-17, the state per-pupil expenditures adjusted for variations in regional cost ranged from roughly $7,200 (Utah) to $20,640 (Vermont) with the average about $12,500.

States with the highest percentage of low-income and minority students tend to have lower per-pupil expenditures. Particularly in the South, some states simply lack the financial resources and infrastructure to provide the money needed to support high-quality and effective K-12 schools for all of their school children. A reasonable goal might be to bring all states to at least the 50th percentile of 2020 per-pupil expenditures by 2030, with adjustments for increases in the cost of living. This would require new legislation and substantial resources from the federal government, which should be partially matched by states.

Disparities Within States: Reducing the within-state (between-district) variation in resource allocation is a somewhat different problem. Attaining equalization among districts should be part of the state's commitment to equal opportunity. Here the federal government might motivate state efforts to adopt something like a weighted pupil formula.

Recently, California took serious steps to equalize spending across districts through its Local Control Funding Formula, which provides equal base funding depending on enrollment, plus supplemental and concentration funds to districts for low-income students, English language learners, and foster youth. Often with the stimulus of state and federal court decisions, other states have been addressing this problem since 1970. But there is still a long way to go, even in California.

Disparities Within Districts: Addressing within-district inequality between schools would require a subtle but significant change to the so-called comparability provision in Title I of ESSA: a provision requiring that resources available to Title I schools [with concentrated poverty] within a district to be comparable on average to the resources available to non-Title I schools.

The comparability provision should be changed to require districts to equalize actual expenditures per pupil. A study by the Department of Education found that a substantial percentage of districts would not meet an expenditures-based comparability requirement, but that the costs to the districts to eliminate shortfalls in affected Title I and higher poverty schools would be relatively modest. This is a controversial proposal but one that deserves serious consideration.

We are not naive about the possibilities of enacting these finance proposals. In the best of times they would be difficult. But with a Congress where tax cuts have been dominant and an administration that is enamored of school choice as a magic bullet, the idea of investing in the education of students in states other than the representatives' own seems particularly unlikely to find many advocates. Yet the three actions by themselves could alter the calculus of education inequality in this country.

They could create new opportunities for millions of children and could even engender trust in the public that the rhetoric of equal opportunity is not just a bad joke.

Adapted with permission from Opportunity for All: A Framework for Quality and Equality in Education by Jennifer A. O’Day and Marshall S. Smith, 2019, published by Harvard Education Press. For more information, please visit https://www.hepg.org/hep-home/books/opportunity-for-all.