It’s Time To Change State School Systems Where Rich Kids Get More Funding Than Poor Ones

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education coin jarSomething is rotten in the state of Pennsylvania–and 22 other states, too, where the school funding system is fundamentally broken. In these 23 states, the amount of money school districts get from the state and the local government is smaller in poor districts than it is in well-to-do areas–sometimes, much smaller.

American schools are funded by a combination of cash from three different levels of government: local, state, and federal, where the intention is for most of the money to come from the two lower tiers. The problem, as the Washington Post reports, is that if you calculate the difference between what low-income districts are getting from local and state government compared to what high-income districts are getting, the average gap across the nation is 15%. Things are even worse in some places, like the aforementioned Pennsylvania, where the disparity between rich districts and poor ones is more than thirty percent. This isn’t entirely surprising when you think about how schools are often funded based on property taxes–of course a row of McMansions is going to bring in more than a string of foreclosed farms–but it’s still depressing.

If you factor in the federal dollars, funding does more or less equal out–after that addition, there are only five states left whose poor students still get less money allocated than the rich kids get. (Low-income kids in Pennsylvania still get almost 12% less than kids in higher-income areas.) But that’s not quite as much of a silver lining as it sounds like: the general idea has always been for the federal government to be involved only to provide extra help paying for materials and services to support students with special needs or requirements–building a wheelchair ramp, providing the salary for special education aides, funding Head Start programs, buying Spanish-language materials for English Language Learners, and so on.

Instead, the federal government is now overextended trying to equalize the entire funding situation so that low-income districts can afford to hire the right number of teachers, buy technology, and generally keep the lights on as well as their upper-class counterparts. Money spent just to get poor districts up to base level is, obviously, not getting spent on special programs for students who actually need it. How can you even think about setting up a Head Start program or bringing in a full-time English Language Learner support position in a district that’s worried about having enough money just to pay for the number of kindergarten teachers it needs?

This system of funding is untenable, and it’s unrealistic to keep expecting these districts to do more with less–don’t forget that low-income students also tend to start kindergarten farther behind compared to higher-income students who’ve probably been drilling colors and numbers with flashcards since they were born. I’m not a policy wonk, and I don’t know what the solution is; pool property tax money at the state level to distribute equally to all students? Have the state set the per-pupil funding level? Have kids from each district fight it out for funding Hunger Games-style? But I’m pretty sure there must be a way to fund schools without the implicit message that students from lower-income areas are less deserving.

So much of the education policy discussion at the national level revolves around teacher performance evaluations and standardized testing (usually, it seems, centered around the idea that ‘more is better’). And as No Child Left Behind is currently being tinkered with in Congress for a rewrite, maybe some positive change can happen here? Before we can even begin to address no child getting left behind by a school, we should first worry about no district getting left behind by the government.

(Image: c-George / Getty)