Unequal Funding for Schools

By Del Stover

How do you respond to a parent who complains that her child’s school receives only $6,400 in per-pupil spending, while a school down the road receives nearly $10,000 per student?     And what do you say to complaints that capital spending over the past decade has put modern, well-equipped schools in affluent suburbs, while inner-city neighborhoods make do with aging buildings without gyms, modern science labs, or even libraries?

A common response might be to point to the lamentable inequities of state education funding formulas, which despite untold legislative battles and court challenges allow affluent communities to invest far more in their schools than can poorer districts.

But what if these complaints focused on funding inequities within the same district -- your school district?

“Often, there can be a disparity in a school district that goes unnoticed or unaddressed, that needs to be changed,” says Edwin Darden, director of education law and policy for Appleseed, a network of public interest justice centers that has studied this issue. “It exists because school board members aren’t purposeful in looking at funding that way.”

In some districts, these funding inequities can be sizable. Studies have found districts in which schools of similar size have budgets that vary by as much as $500,000 to $1 million. Sometimes the reasons for these disparities are clear: Money is set aside for students with greater need. Or it’s invested in such strategic priorities as magnet programs or small high schools where campus costs exceed the economies of scale found in larger, traditional schools.

Yet at other times the reasons for sizable budget differences are not so readily apparent. In Texas, a lawsuit against the Clint Independent School District alleges that per-pupil spending among the district’s three high schools varies by as much as $3,500. Meanwhile, a civil rights group in Austin, Texas, is questioning why one elementary school, with only 2.9 percent of students living in poverty, receives roughly $600 more per student than another school with 97.8 percent of students who are economically disadvantaged.

Some school leaders will argue serious inequities cannot possibly exist in their districts -- that any apparent disparities in school budgets or per-pupil spending are the result of sound reasoning. But Darden says such confidence can be misplaced: He recalls advising one board member on how to audit the equity of educational opportunities in her district -- and her surprise at the findings. “The board member called me back and said, ‘Guess what? We didn’t do nearly as well as expected.’”

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