How funding shortfalls are blocking schools from serving students

Insufficient educational investments across districts during normal times mean they're even less able to prepare for emergencies such as COVID, analysis finds.

U.S. students are being shortchanged. Not by their teachers, principals or superintendents but by K-12 funding policies that are preventing educators from providing a high-quality education to all children at all times.

The combination of local, state and federal funds also is not stable enough to withstand emergencies such as COVID, and the inherent inequities become more severe during and after recessions, according to a new analysis by the Economic Policy Institute. Per-student funding did not rebound for about eight years after the Great Recession that began in December 2007, and the recovery took even longer in high-poverty districts.

“Given that educational investments are not sufficient across many districts even during normal times, schools are unable to make preparations to cope with emergencies or other unexpected circumstances,” the report says.

It also reaffirms what many educators know: High-poverty districts that serve larger shares of students of color get less funding from property taxes and other local resources. But it also provides some figures. The highest-poverty districts spend an average $13,000 per pupil but need more than $18,000 per pupil to serve students adequately. The most affluent districts, on the other hand, are able to spend more than what is required.

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The highest-poverty districts also receive more than $5,000 less in local property tax revenues than low-poverty school systems, and state and federal sources do not cover the gap. The result is that “school districts in general–but especially those in high-poverty areas–are not spending enough to achieve national average test scores, which is an established benchmark for assessing adequacy,” the analysis says.

The overarching solution researchers propose is that the federal government get more involved and invest more heavily in K-12 education, with a focus on giving less affluent students sufficient resources “in good times and bad.” The key to this overhaul would be designing education funding to automatically increase when the economy is contracting. Along with stabilizing schools, this could also lessen the severity of the overall downturn because education spending would act as an economic stimulus, the researchers conclude.

“We have normalized the practice of underinvesting in education while expecting that schools would still function well (or at least moderately well),” the researchers wrote. “We have also accepted the disproportionate burden that economic recessions place on public schools and students. This approach is backward.”

The researchers distinguished between funding and decision-making. The federal government can guarantee equitable K-12 funding but state and local education leaders should play a key role in policy and practice decisions. The author also urged officials to banish the phrase “doing more with less” because it is often used as a euphemism for budget cuts and ignores the damage that ensues when resources fall short or dry up completely. Moving forward “also requires that we dislodge the conversation from where it has been stuck for at least the past half-century–namely on whether the resources exist. They do,” the researchers wrote. “What we need to ask now is how to make those resources available and how to deploy them to ensure that all students have the opportunities to learn, develop and achieve their full potential.”

The gist of the report seems to be in line with public sentiment. Nearly two-thirds of adults say the country has not paid enough attention to the educational needs of students during the pandemic, according to a survey released by the Pew Research Center earlier this month.

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Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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