• Bell Wilkins

Missing the Mark on K12 Finance Equity

Edstruments is grateful to EdBuild and EdWeek for their groundbreaking school finance research, without which this article would not have been possible.

The United States is shortchanging our most vulnerable students, especially those in our non-white communities. With better K12 finance, however, we can turn things around.


According to US education policy experts, the country earns a dismal C grade in how it funds its public schools according to four metrics:

  1. Per-pupil expenditures

  2. % of students in districts spending at or above US average

  3. Spending index*

  4. % of total taxable resources spent on education

*(This metric measures how much effort it would take to fund all students in a state at the current state median. The more inequitable a state is, the worse the spending index)


This rating would be even lower if overall spending was one of the four formula inputs. In that category, the nation received a D, with 23 of the 50 states receiving an outright F.


How did we get here? It’s no secret that K12 funding is a critical factor in the quality of education schools can provide. In fact, the topic has led to state Supreme Court cases in California, New Jersey, and New York-- all of which ruled in favor of more equitable school funding formulas benefitting high-poverty areas. Yet somehow, nearly two decades after the latest of these cases, most of the United States is still missing the mark when it comes to equitably giving schools the resources they need to serve their K12 students.


Moreover, the United States’ painful history of slavery and discrimination has trapped countless Black and brown students in cycles of poverty, with no quality education options as a “great equalizer” to help them better their circumstances. The result is not only an unquantifiable waste of talent and potential, but also a very quantifiable gap in school spending between white and non-white districts: 23 billion dollars to be exact.


Twenty-three billion. 23,000,000,000. Eleven figures. That’s enough to buy every NFL and NBA franchise on the eastern seaboard. It’s just short of the GDP of Iceland, and double that of the Bahamas. With numbers so large, it is easy to lose sight of what these sums truly mean, but it is crucial to understand the magnitude of this number-- especially considering white and non-white districts serve nearly the same number of children nationwide.


Again, we must ask: how did we get here? Expert research suggests the inequity in K12 school funding has two causes: the historical inequity underlying education finance policies, and the dynamics which perpetuate those root causes.


Breaking it down:

From its founding, the US public education system has emphasized local control (and localized funding) for school districts. Unfortunately, the US also long enforced laws that-- many times intentionally-- kept Black and brown people from building wealth in their local communities. From slavery to redlining, state-sanctioned policies created a stubborn wealth gap between white and non-white areas that depressed property tax bases in majority-minority areas. To this day, that gap in tax revenue plays a significant role in the funding gap between white and non-white neighborhood schools.


53% of all students in the US are enrolled in either white districts (defined as when 75% or more of all students are white) or non-white districts (75% or more non-white). The breakdowns of the two sub-groups are quite similar-- 27% of all US students are in non-white districts vs 26% in white districts.

However, while 20% of all US students are in high-poverty non-white districts, only 5% of all US students are in high-poverty white districts. Put another way, the vast majority of US students in non-white districts live in poverty, while the vast majority of US students in white districts do not.

[These are percentages only of students in either white or non-white districts]


Furthermore, high-poverty non-white districts are packed with far more students than white districts are (averaging 10,500 students vs. fewer than 1,500). Mathematically, this means there are a greater number of white districts, which gives these districts greater combined voice in state convenings of district leaders to protect their interests (potentially at the expense of larger, non-white districts). Since some states give additional grants to smaller districts to support the fixed costs of their central offices and buildings, this also leads to more resources per student in white districts. A larger district student body may result in parents and community members feeling less connection to and ownership of the choices being made on behalf of their students by administrators, causing them to engage less than they would otherwise.


School funding varies by state, locality, and district, making it impossible to use blanket statements that are accurate and precise. Still, the data supports a troubling theme of poorer, non-white districts lacking the resources of their white peers. As of 2016, an estimated 12 million students live in non-white school districts. 83% of them are in states that fund their districts at lower levels than white school districts. This is still true after decades of litigation by education advocates, and the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic could make these inequities even greater.


Where do we go from here?

Florida and Tennessee represent exemplars in school funding equity. Ranked the top two in the nation, these diverse states both have sizeable non-white populations (47% and 26% respectively) and received top marks in how they equitably manage school resource allocation. Florida has a high amount (>19%) of students in poverty but takes great care to intentionally provide more to students in poverty—especially those concentrated in non-white districts. Tennessee has emphasized non-white, high poverty school districts for the better part of a decade (arguably at the expense of its rural districts), and the results show in its equity ranking.


Right behind these southern standouts in third for equity (and first for spending) is a perennial model for excellent school funding, Wyoming: out of the eight finance indicators experts analyze, Wyoming lands in the top 10 for five of them. In 1995, their Supreme Court ruled that the state was obligated to fund schools in an equitable and adequate manner. As a result, education takes precedence over other budget items in Wyoming’s state legislature; the 5.2% of taxable resources it devotes to education is the second-highest rate in America.


It is important to remember that Wyoming, with fewer than 600,000 residents, is the least populous state in the country (Los Angeles is over seven times as large.) It is also almost entirely white. The size and diversity of other states will make Wyoming’s approach challenging, but challenging does not mean impossible. Prioritizing education, correcting funding disparities, and ensuring fairness of resource allocation for every school site are the first steps towards more equitable K12 funding in all states.


This may mean re-imagining the choice of local funding that has been the foundation of the American education system for centuries. While a daunting task, we must remember that the country is already re-imagining nearly all of its systems in the face of an unprecedented pandemic. Thus, if there was ever a time for big, structural change in education, it may be now. Some may believe we can’t afford to do this in the face of ballooning national debt. But with the competitiveness of US society in the balance, the question becomes: can we afford not to?

Edstruments exists to equip education leaders with the knowledge and tools to most effectively and equitably serve their students. To learn more about how we can help your school administrators make better financial decisions, email us at hello@edstruments.com or fill out the contact form on our main website.

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