The effects of unequal school funding

A recent analysis of research on the funding for public schools in America supported by the Rockefeller Foundation’s series In Pursuit of Better Schools describes what we now know about the effects of unequal funding.

Public schools in the United States receive very unequal financial support, ranging from less than $4,000 to more than $15,000 per student. Large differences in public school funding appear both between and within states and between schools in a single school district.

Funding varies because more than half of the financial support for public schools comes from local property taxes. This means that the amount of funding communities provide varies according to their wealth. No other advanced nation funds its public schools with local property taxes. Except for the United States, advanced nations provide equal per-student funding from general tax revenues for all schools throughout the country.

Resistance fueled by studies on funding and student achievement

Bruce J. Biddle, University of Missouri, and David C. Berliner, Arizona State University, report that while many people in the United States say they support equal funding for public schools, the opposition has been fierce in many wealthy suburban communities. However, Biddle and Berliner believe that once citizens “understand the huge size of funding differences and their effects in the United States, most people are likely to support reforms designed to provide greater funding equity.”

In their opinion, resistance to equity in school funding reflects several factors: ignorance about funding differences; unthinking acceptance of traditional methods for funding education; desire to keep personal taxes low; and inappropriate beliefs about the causes of poverty.

America’s ideology of individualism holds that success and failure result mainly from individual effort rather than social circumstance. In addition, less-privileged groups are sometimes thought to have inherited characteristics that account for whatever lack of success they experience. It is also argued that minorities fail because of inappropriate traditions in the subcultures of their homes, communities, or ethnic groups.

Reluctance to provide equal funds for schools has also been fueled by claims of prominent researchers who assert that the levels of funding for schools have little or no effect on student achievement.

Early studies, including the Coleman report, are now known to have been seriously flawed. The report’s authors had failed to use available scaling techniques to validate their procedures, and made errors when assigning indicators to major variables now known to be associated with school effects. The report used non-standard procedures for statistical analysis that generated falsely deflated estimates of school effects.

Studies should meet three conditions

These researchers state that studies of the effects of school funding should meet three specific conditions. First, they should be based on sizable samples that include examples of both well-funded and poorly funded schools. Second, they should include statistical controls for level of income, socioeconomic status, and other types of advantage in the home or community that students bring with them to school.

And third, a study should measure only a single level of the educational system — the classroom, for example — so that all variables used in the analysis apply to classrooms (and not districts or states), since the statistics aren’t comparable for different size groups.

To establish the case for a causal relation between two variables such as funding and student achievement, one must conduct several studies, using different techniques, that collectively rule out all reasonably credible alternative factors that might account for the apparent relationship one is studying.

Increased education spending not directed to achievement

Biddle and Berliner’s research synthesis reveals study findings demonstrating that the level of funding is tied to sizable net effects for student achievement. These studies have employed techniques designed to rule out alternative hypotheses, and all of them have concluded that funding has substantial effects on achievement, although the level of advantage in the home and community has an even greater impact on achievement.

The joint effects of school funding and student advantage are large. Achievement scores from U.S. school districts with substantial funding and low student poverty are similar to those earned by the highest scoring countries on international tests. Scores from districts where funding is low and poverty is high are similar to those in the lowest-scoring countries.

Critics of public schools sometimes claim that funding for schools has increased greatly in recent years without any increase in achievement. This claim is refuted by a careful study of spending patterns in nine school districts across the United States from 1967 to 1991.

Legislative mandates and court decisions have given schools new responsibilities to meet the needs of disadvantaged students. These mandates have raised costs for public schools significantly.

However, these increases have not been used for additional resources that would generate increases in average student achievement. About one-third of the new dollars went to support special education students; eight percent went to dropout prevention programs, alternative instruction, and counseling aimed at keeping students in school; another eight percent went to expand school lunch programs; and 28 percent went to fund increased salaries for the aging teacher population.

Very few additional dollars were provided for needs associated with instruction during these years. It should be no surprise that these investments generated few achievement gains for mainstream students.

Stronger teacher qualifications linked to achievement

Two types of resources associated with greater school funding have been linked to higher levels of student achievement: stronger teacher qualifications and smaller classes in the early grades. Better-funded school districts can attract teachers with higher levels of education, more experience, and higher scores on competency tests; these teachers generate better achievement scores among students.

More funding also helps schools reduce class size in the early grades. In some studies, the achievement increases for reduced class size appear to be smaller that those for better-qualified teachers. But there is some evidence that differences in reporting class size may account for this smaller effect.

Some studies have not examined class size directly but have instead used a student-teacher ratio that often counts coaches, nurses, social workers and other non-teaching professionals as teachers.

The funding of public schools through local property taxes has deep historical roots in our country, and our traditional beliefs about individual efficacy argue that the access to education is a personal right exercised by students and their families for their own benefit. But Americans also have a vision for public education that provides education for all children in order to create the informed citizenry that a democratic government needs.

This vision “embraces the welfare of all children in the nation, upholding the ideal of equal opportunity and stressing the belief that public education can level the playing field.” As John Dewey wrote a century ago: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must be what the community wants for all its children.”

“Unequal School Funding in the United States” Educational Leadership Volume 59, Number 8, May 2002 pp. 48-59.

Published in ERN September 2002 Volume 15 Number 6

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