In some public schools in America, every student has access to a personal computer. In others, leaking ceilings go unfixed for weeks. In the U.S., public school funding is vastly inequitable, perpetuating cycles of poverty and creating a massive achievement gap. It is universally unequal, from state to state and district to district.
The source of schools’ money reveals why there are such huge differences in their budgets. Schools receive money from federal, state, and local governments—usually about 10 percent from federal, 45 percent from the state, and 45 percent from municipalities, though it varies by state. The federal money is pretty evenly distributed, usually going towards programs like Head Start or Free and Reduced Meals. However, state and local funding is wildly uneven, causing huge gaps in funding from place to place.
State governments have the freedom to decide how much to spend on education. States which enforce higher tax rates, have wealthier citizens, and prioritize public education have better funded schools. According to a recent, far-reaching, national study from NPR in 2016, schools in New York spent an average of over $17,000 per student, compared to less than $9,000 by schools in Oklahoma. They found the national average spending to be $11,841 per student.
Local governments’ contributions are even more problematic, causing even bigger gaps. Local governments use property taxes as the primary source of revenue for their public schools. This means that places with high property values, such as affluent suburbs or bustling centers of commerce, have a lot of money to give to their schools. Low-income urban neighborhoods and rural areas have low property values, leaving their schools strapped for cash. Under-funded schools further drag down property values, creating a vicious cycle.
The results of this system can be seen almost everywhere. In Colorado Springs, school funding varies widely based on district. Cresson Elementary School, located just past Pike’s Peak to the west, spent about $15,383 per student in 2016. An hour away, east of the city, Falcon Elementary School could only afford to spend $7,194 per student in the same year. Schools in the district around CC, known colloquially as D11, were able to spend an average of $9,721 per student; better than at Falcon, but still more than $2,000 below the national average.
Because of the universality of school funding inequality, there have been many attempts at solutions. Judicial challenges are the most common, and have had mixed success. In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled against Demetrio Rodriguez, a poor Latino father who sued the San Antonio Public School District because his children’s school languished economically while schools across town flourished. The ruling absolved the federal government of any responsibility to ensure equal education. The moral vision of Brown v. Board of Education from less than 20 years earlier was dead.
Plaintiffs have been more successful at the state level, primarily because every state constitution contains the right to a free, adequate, public education, while the U.S. Constitution does not. In North Carolina in 1997, the State Supreme Court ruled that the state was neglecting its constitutional responsibility to educate children and ordered legislators to find a remedy. As a result, North Carolina currently provides over two-thirds of its schools’ funding, lessening disparities. More recently, the Supreme Courts of Connecticut and Kansas have authored similar rulings, though it is too early to tell how much will really change. However, large differences in North Carolina remain, especially since the recession hit in 2009, lowering property values across the state and leaving poorer municipalities struggling to make ends meet.
Legislative fixes are rare, but they should not be. In progressive cities and states across the country, legislators that claim to be committed to closing the achievement gap and lifting people out of cyclical poverty consistently ignore school funding inequality. The issue stems from the fact that parents in wealthy communities heavily protest any effort by governments to spend their taxes on other people’s schools—and since wealthy parents often make more political donations and have more time to show up to city council meetings or state legislative sessions, their voices carry a lot of weight. Poor parents without money or time to spare are left in the dust.
Any viable solution to the problem would have to involve changing the formula for how schools are funded. That could mean that state governments intervene to redistribute local property taxes. It could also mean state and federal governments up their payment, and allocate it in a way that balances out differences in local tax revenue. Any changes in how school funding is distributed should be coupled with across-the-board spending increases on education.
No matter how you draw it up, the solution would be administratively awkward and difficult to implement. Inevitably, people would get mad. The fact that it would cost taxpayers extra money, especially wealthy ones, would not help either. However, the cost of disregarding the problem, continuing with the current model, far outweighs the cost of dealing with it.
Like so many other facets of America’s poverty problem, the issue of school funding can only be solved if people care to solve it. It is not a sexy issue. No politician gets huge applause for lines about reallocating property taxes; but the reality is, if America is to ever truly be a place in which anyone can succeed, we have to better fund our failing schools.