The Next Educational Equity Battleground: Little-Noticed ESSA Provision to Allow Parents to See Whether Districts Fund Schools Fairly
Updated Feb. 27
In the suburbs west of Philadelphia, the drive between Penn Wood and Lower Merion high schools is just five miles, yet the two campuses are worlds apart.
In Lower Merion, home to the the city’s wealthy and political elite, affluence is reflected in everything from its state-of-the-art campus building to the taxpayer-funded laptops in students’ backpacks. At Penn Wood, however, 75 percent of students are economically disadvantaged and, as a graduate said in a recent documentary, “At any given moment, 1 student out of every 8 can use a computer.”
The schools have been a flashpoint for years — including in a lawsuit currently before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court — over the way school districts receive money. Education funding in the United States is largely based on local property taxes, meaning that school quality is often a function of ZIP code.
The gaping academic chasms between the haves and the have-nots among the nation’s school districts is a familiar battleground in educational equity, fought over in countless research studies, policy briefs, and court proceedings. That, however, is only part of the story. Less known is the way districts distribute money down to the schools that report to them — and whether those dollars are distributed fairly.
That’s about to change.
When Congress updated federal education law in 2015, it included a little-noticed, bipartisan provision that requires states to report per-pupil spending at the school level. The Every Student Succeeds Act provision goes into effect in the 2018–19 school year. That change, advocates and researchers predict, is likely to expose disparities in the way some districts divide resources among their schools.
‘The Missing Puzzle Piece’
The data will become “dramatically game-changing,” said Ary Amerikaner, director of P12 resource equity at The Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group. Funding equity advocates have long decried the huge disparities in school resources between states and between districts in the same state. But the new information, she said, could reveal a “one-two punch of inequities,” in which money is distributed unfairly between school districts and, in turn, district leaders pass on a smaller chunk of change to their highest-need schools.
“It’s about to be the newest battle on the equity front when it comes to education funding,” said Amerikaner. “I think now [it’s] going to be like, ‘Aha, this is the missing puzzle piece.’ ”
School district leaders have historically calculated budgets at the district level, lumping spending into overarching categories like teacher salaries or technology, said Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. It can be a byzantine and opaque process, leaving many superintendents in the dark about the extent of disparities between their own campuses — although the level of knowledge and discretion over finances can vary. Additionally, researchers caution that not all funding disparities have nefarious origins. For example, many districts intentionally direct funding to schools that help disadvantaged students.
This complexity has long made school-level spending patterns difficult to analyze, but Amerikaner said the ESSA-mandated information is already spurring on local activists. “The first step is just opening up the conversation and empowering our best advocates, which are usually parents,” she said. The new data will give them useful information so they “know what the status quo is [and] ask hard questions.”
Down the road, she said, a new kind of equity lawsuit could emerge.
Using the judicial system to force changes in school funding has long been an uphill battle. The U.S. Supreme Court handed equity advocates a huge blow in 1973, when it ruled that school funding systems based on local property taxes were constitutional. Meanwhile, the success rate in state courts has been a mixed bag. After years of fighting, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court revived last fall a lawsuit that the William Penn School District filed against the commonwealth, arguing that the scheme the state uses to fund school districts — long criticized for being among the nation’s most inequitable — shortchanges students from low-income households. In Connecticut, meanwhile, the state’s highest court in January threw out a similar lawsuit that spanned more than a decade.
The Education Law Center, which is representing plaintiffs in the Pennsylvania suit, has long been focused on funding disparities between wealthy and high-poverty school districts. But the new data could open districts to legal liability should they distribute money inequitably among their own schools, said Maura McInerney, the group’s legal director. Although the group argues that Pennsylvania’s funding scheme violates the commonwealth’s constitution, McInerney said funding lawsuits may fare better in federal courts if they’re aimed at the school level. For example, federal law prohibits schools from discriminating against students based on race. The new data could spell trouble for districts, she said, if they distribute more money to schools that serve predominantly white students.
“I think it’s something we haven’t really paid attention to in the past,” McInerney said, referring to funding disparities within districts. But the new data “will provide an opportunity to really look at these issues and drill down on whether districts are actually under-allocating resources to poor and minority students.”
Cracking the Code
Roza of Georgetown’s Edunomics Lab has been trying to nail down school-level funding disparities for more than a decade. After spending many years haggling with districts to hand over budget details, Roza saw spending variations in some communities she described as “almost criminal.”
“You’d go to these districts and they’d be like, ‘Well, this allocation over here is called the “board allocation,” and that’s the one the board can [use to] fund its pet projects in the schools it cares about,’ ” Roza said.
In large and medium-size districts across the country, she found, leaders spent less money on teacher salaries in high-poverty schools, which then also received a smaller share of unrestricted funds that are not earmarked for a specific purpose.
Inequality among district schools has a long history in the United States, dating back at least as far as the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which hinged on inequities within segregated schools. However, the extent of funding disparities on a national level remains “a black box,” said Amerikaner, who, along with Roza and other researchers, has worked to crack the code relying on incomplete data.
“When we first started looking at this, we went to some of the bigger districts and we said, ‘Let’s take a look at your 10 highest-poverty elementary schools, and we’ll compare them to your 10 most affluent schools,’ ” Roza said. “If you routinely saw an extra $2,000 more per pupil on the more affluent side, you’d start to go, ‘These patterns are not random.’”
Relying on data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, the Center for American Progress released a report in 2015 that found wide funding disparities between schools that receive federal Title I funds aimed at the most impoverished students and those that do not. Researchers blamed that difference, amounting to about $1,200 per pupil, on a “loophole” in federal law. In a 2011 Education Department report, researchers found that 40 percent of Title I schools spent less in local and state money on personnel salaries than schools that didn’t receive Title I funds.
In order to receive Title I dollars, districts must provide “comparable” educational services to wealthy and poor schools. Although teacher salaries typically are a district’s largest expense, the law requires districts to report average teacher salaries across the district — rather than as expenditures by school. That average masks a huge variation in teacher salaries, researchers noted. Because teachers with more experience — and better pay — typically flock to affluent schools with larger white student populations, a smaller chunk of the district’s spending on salaries goes to high-poverty schools with more minority students.
Another Center for American Progress report relies on data the government collected in 2009 as part of the Obama administration’s post-recession stimulus bill. In that report, Amerikaner blew up the argument that property taxes are primarily to blame for the disparities between schools, since disparities within districts loomed almost as large as those between districts. Among school spending inequities, she found, more than 40 percent can be attributed to disparities within school districts.
Without complete data from all states, however, it’s been difficult to assess the full extent of the problem. That’s what the new ESSA mandate seeks to change.
The Latest Research
New research is beginning to bring the picture into focus, with some counterintuitive results. In one report released last year, focusing exclusively on personnel spending, researchers found that poor and minority students across the country actually receive 1 to 2 percent more resources, on average, than wealthy and white students in the same district.
Digging beneath the more benign national statistics, however, researchers found large disparities, with the most inequitable districts spending up to $500 per pupil less on poor and minority students. Minority students typically received less money when their parents earned salaries equal to that of white families, researchers found, as well as in whiter, wealthier districts where the few black residents may have less political clout.
Kenneth Shores, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and author of the report, said he was surprised by the findings because he thought disparities would be more substantial. That said, Shores was quick to note the study’s caveats. For one, the data didn’t capture other school spending, like building construction. “It may be that richer schools have fancier buildings, and that’s not trivial,” he said.
Additionally, the report raises an important difference between equity and equality. While average spending was relatively similar across districts, equity advocates have long argued that additional resources — beyond an equal dollar amount — should be directed to schools that serve the highest-need students in order to offset historic imbalances.
Although the ESSA requirement will provide a new layer of financial transparency, it falls short on accountability. The Education Department under then-President Barack Obama pushed for rules that would have held districts accountable for imbalanced spending patterns. That proposal, however, was scrapped days before President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
A Tool for Parents
A handful of states, such as Louisiana, already have laws requiring districts to collect and report per-pupil spending at the school level, and though the information has been largely geared toward lawmakers and researchers, it has spurred change.
In Memphis, Tennessee, for example, Shelby County Schools administrators commissioned a report on school-level spending, which showed that some schools received twice as much money per pupil than other campuses. In a survey, more than half of the principals said the district’s funding mechanism was inequitable. Those findings ultimately led to a “student-based budget” pilot program, implemented at a handful of campuses this school year. Under the program, which gives principals greater autonomy over resources, a dollar amount is assigned to each student based on their individual needs.
Unlike current efforts, the new information required under ESSA is expected to be more accessible to parents.
A group of state leaders are working collaboratively to create data visualizations that will allow parents to easily compare schools in their districts, said Brent Engelman, the education data and information systems director at the Council of Chief State School Officers. State education leaders, he said, see the fresh data as an opportunity to better analyze the return on investment from school-level reform efforts.
The nonprofit is also urging state education leaders to prepare for inequalities to emerge, he said. While the data could identify inequities that demand action, some disparities could be justified. The Memphis report, for example, found that campuses that were part of the district’s program to turn around long-struggling schools received more money.
Louisiana is among the states working on the data visualization. The state aims to provide additional context around school funding levels since an even distribution of funds isn’t always the most equitable, said Beth Scioneaux, the Louisiana Department of Education’s chief financial officer. A higher percentage of students with disabilities at a school, for example, could lead to higher spending. The visualization, she said, will help families and advocates understand the full story surrounding district spending.
“There’s no set of numbers that can tell every piece of context about a school,” she said. But the new data will reveal “whether it’s at least plausible that the district’s spending patterns are intentional, or even equitable, or not.”
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