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Rich schools, poor schools and the Biden plan

Can President Biden Fix the Unfair Funding of America’s Public Schools?

The administration’s latest budget proposal suggests it will try. The plan includes a $ 20 billion program for very poor school districts. States would get additional funding if they “corrected long-standing funding disparities” between rich and poor neighborhoods.

If it works, the program would benefit districts like Hampton City Schools near Norfolk in Southeast Virginia. Most students in Hampton City public schools are black or from low-income households. The district receives about $ 10,500 per student per year in state and local funding, according to the US Department of Education.

Compare Hampton City to the Arlington County School District in Virginia, a wealthy liberal enclave across the Potomac River from Washington. Because Virginia allows districts to fund themselves with local property tax revenues – Arlington is full of expensive homes and office buildings for lobbyists and defense contractors – annual funding per student there is over $ 22,000 .

Hampton City is booming. Graduation rates are rising, more students are taking college courses, and District Chief Jeffery Smith has been named the 2020 Superintendent of the Year in Virginia. But Hampton City has less than half the per capita funding of an affluent neighborhood that has fewer at-risk students.

The entire American public education system works this way. Students are spread across a patchwork of 16,000 school districts, many of which were created to accumulate resources in predominantly white areas. The nonprofit group EdBuild found that districts where more than 75% of students are white receive $ 23 billion more per year than districts where more than 75% of students are not white, even though there has more students in predominantly non-white districts.

Zahava Stadler, former policy director at EdBuild who currently focuses on education funding with civil rights organization The Education Trust, said the new funding for the Biden plan “would not just add money where it’s needed; it would also provide an important impetus for states to change policies that create inequalities in state and local funding. “

Over the past two decades, federal K-12 education policy has focused primarily on improving schools built on an uneven financial basis by establishing consistent academic standards and holding schools accountable for outcomes. student test results. These policies fall far short of their goal of closing the gap in test scores between high-income white students and their peers. The Biden plan could be the first serious effort in more than a generation to repair the foundation itself.

In the past, critics have questioned whether equitable funding of schools would actually improve educational outcomes. But a strong academic research consensus has emerged in recent years that increased funding for schools actually improves education.

Getting the program to work will not be easy. It takes a lot of pressure to get state lawmakers to change the status quo. A sum of $ 20 billion alone does not buy much leverage to advance a system that generates $ 750 billion in state and local funding each year. States with more equitable funding systems than Virginia’s limit the ability of wealthy districts to self-finance with local revenues while providing generous grants to districts with fewer local resources. Minnesota, for example, is much less dependent on local property taxes and offers more state funding to districts with large numbers of low-income and minority students.

Such redistributive policies often meet strong resistance and, in many states, have only progressed under the threat of judicial decree. The citizens of Arlington County may have voted overwhelmingly for President Biden, but they would likely be reluctant to limit their ability to spend local funds on schools.

Hampton City also voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Biden. As the Democratic political coalition adds more affluent, college-educated white commuters to a minority voter base, school funding reform could turn into an intra-party struggle for resources.

The administration did not specify how the new funding formula would work. The initiative is presented as part of the long-established Federal Title I program which aims to support poorer schools. But it’s actually a whole new program.

Title I, a complex mix of funding programs totaling $ 16 billion, already has a $ 4 billion formula called the Education Finance Incentive Grant. This program provides more money to states that distribute funding fairly and doubles the percentage of federal aid to poor school districts in states that don’t.

Michael Dannenberg, vice president of the nonprofit advocacy group Education Reform Now, helped draft the incentive grant formula when he worked as a staff member of Senator Ted Kennedy in the early 2000s. “They should either inject all new money through the current incentive grant formula for education funding, or come up with an entirely new formula that more targets poorer school districts and includes even stronger incentives to create equitable public funding systems Mr. Dannenberg said.

Dannenberg notes that during the presidential campaign, President Biden pledged to triple Title I funding, and that linking the new $ 20 billion to the existing $ 16 billion would go a long way towards fulfilling that pledge.

Many federal programs, including Medicaid, offer proportionately larger grants to states with lower per capita income. Title I does the opposite, giving roughly 50% more money to districts in richer states than to poorer ones.

Why? The authors of the Title I formula wanted to recognize that education costs more in some areas than in others. They decided that the more a state spent per student, the more dollars each of its districts would receive. The formula assumes that states that spend more on education have higher costs. In reality, states spend more mainly because they have more wealth. This is why most of the national differences in the funding of school districts are Between States, not within states.

This is a potential blind spot in the Biden plan. If Mississippi and Connecticut distributed their own school funding with perfect fairness, the richer Connecticut districts would still spend the Mississippi districts by far. Instead of helping the poor neighborhoods of Mississippi, the current Title I formula exacerbates these disparities.

Fixing all of this would be consistent with the goals of the Biden plan.

If Congress passes the plan, the most lasting effect may not be the funding it provides, but the precedent it sets. Many successful political movements, such as the increasing adoption of a minimum wage of $ 15, began with a strong statement of principle and practice. The first step towards a more equitable funding system may be to declare that it is possible.

Kevin Carey heads the education policy program at New America. You can follow him on Twitter at @ kevincarey1.

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