The Current State of Public School Funding
When dealing with the issue of public school funding, one is required to look at 3 separate levels of a system that individually aims at noble goals while collectively missing the mark.
The United States spends over $550B per year collectively on public elementary and secondary education. Nationally a whopping $11,000 is spent per elementary student on average, over $12,000 per high school student. While American school spending outpaces the next top spender (Japan) by almost 4 times, American students rank 30th in science and 23rd in science amongst 65 other nations ranked by PISA.
The net result – America is spending more on education and that spending is having less of an impact. But the rub is, where we are spending it. Too much money is being spent on administrative salaries and standardized testing. Too little is actually spent in areas where it can improve outcomes – like areas with low tax bases that depend more on federal and state funding than others.
Federal Dollars are Inadequate…
Federal dollars account for a mere 12% of elementary and secondary education funding in America. The issue with this is one of equality – Federal dollars, more evenly applied across districts and in a larger volume, could help bridge the gap between poorer states and wealthier ones were those dollars equally applied based on need rather than census.
The U.S. Government spends nearly $79B annually on primary and secondary education programs. The majority of this funding is discretionary spending, meaning it is set annually by Congress through the appropriations process which is wrought with inefficiencies and often subject to the political climate at the time. Allocations of federal dollars vary widely by state and are as consistent as the results of elections, varying from as little as 5% of the total spend to as much as 16%.
Most of today’s Federal funding is allocated to No Child Left Behind Title I grants and IDEA special education grants for states. Additionally, funding is also administered through The Department of Agriculture’s child nutrition program, the Department of Health and Human Service’s Head Start program, and Youth Build which is a program of the Department of Labor.
The issue here is that federal funding comes with a carrot…schools have to follow poorly conceived and subjectively applied standards, with no real goal of improving educational outcomes, at a relative high cost which ends up simply deflecting additional costs put there by the legislation in the first place.
In case you’re wondering, yes, we’re talking about Common Core…again. This idea that all children should be college ready is foolish as it ignores the vast majority of career disciplines that we need nationally to maintain our infrastructure and keep America going strong into the next century.
U.S. Funding Sources for
Elementary & Secondary Education (2012 data)
Courtesy: National Center for Educational Statistics
State Funding is routinely inconsistent…
States rely primarily on income and sales taxes to fund their schools. Some rely on property taxes as well or a mix of the three. Complex rules and formulas often determine allocations which tend to be inconsistent relying heavily on headcount and using weights that are sometimes disproportionate. Weights for the number of students living at or below the poverty line, students with disabilities, and/or students for whom English is a second language are often reasons for their formulaic weights. States that use property taxes for funding have a greater disparity in funding and quality than states that do not. State funding tends to be poorly prioritized, with urban school districts seeing fewer resources even though their needs are greater in population, distribution, and income levels.
One of the biggest issues we’ve seen in our home state is the overzealous applications of tax abatements by state and local leaders. Tax abatements; which usually are offered to companies as part of a package to attract them to open a business in a state in the first place; are often over-leveraged effectively starving already cash-strapped school districts of the much-needed state and municipal funding.
This issue is much more dramatic in some states than others. Our home state of Pennsylvania is the worst in the country when it comes to education funding inequality.
Localized Funding ensures disparity…
Localized funding relies completely on property taxes in most jurisdictions; others have an individual school tax that is based on a property tax formula. Wealthier, property-rich localities often can collect more taxes making them disproportionately funded. Elected school boards control funding allocation making the idea of School Boards more about money and politics and less about the quality of education. Funding under these conditions is rarely consistent, as allocations often change although taxation amounts do not.
What Concerns The Franklin Foundation
A general lack of transparency about budgeting & spending processes in most larger urban school districts creates significant financial disparities amongst the schools in that district and contributes to massive budget shortfalls. These disparities decrease learning quality due to the existence of less modern facilities, instruction materials, and lower-paid educators who are more like social workers who teach when compared to their suburban peers. Larger cities, oddly enough, attract higher-paid administrators who perform less effectively than their lower-paid peers in more affluent districts making inefficiency a major factor in the fight for funding equality.
Funding in school districts in the same state can be widely disparate due to differences in funding sources, populations, etc. The Federal Government’s “equity factor”, which was implemented as part of Title I, Part A of the No Child Left Behind Act measures school finance equity but does little to stem the gaps that exist due to favorability shown toward pet projects of the administration in power, or legislative committee interests.
Education funding is widely inconsistent and disparate, forcing school districts around the country to plan for budgets that may not be fully funded by the end of the fiscal year. This creates a climate where educators and administrators are tense, fearing next-year consequences to unanticipated budget shortfalls.
Plain and simple, we believe funding needs to be more even across the board. General costs should be studied, discussed, normalized and adjusted accordingly. The Federal Government, given its fiduciary stake in National Security, should chip in the difference and shortfalls from state and municipal funds. The Federal primary and secondary education budget should be at least 3 times what it is today simply because today’s child will need to be tomorrow’s engineer, teacher, senator, submarine captain, computer scientist, CEO, or virologist.
“The only way to ensure our nation’s long-term security is through the development of an educated populous…and that is what makes public schools so critical.”
– Endre Jarraux Walls
Chairman, The Franklin Foundation
So here’s what we’re going to do about it:
1Work at all levels to educate lawmakers, administrators, educators, and most importantly, parents about why the system, not our teachers, is failing our children and how we can make it better. Help lawmakers understand that consistent and predictable funding is necessary for our long-term national security and to create a climate where learning outcomes and not resources are the focus of administrators.
2Encourage parents and administrators to take action to make funding more consistent and equitable. Support lawmakers in an effort to promote even and consistent funding without increasing the burden on individual taxpayers.
3Use Philanthropic Funding along with sponsorships to lessen the burden of schools where potential is high but resources are low. Identify systems that are working and replicate their success to those that are struggling.
4Remove the “Carrots” by working with federal policy makers to improve school funding based on a national per student baseline. This would provide relief to school districts nationwide while putting federal dollars in the right places without politicizing education.