Show me the money

We read new reports on the state of school funding in America so you don’t have to. Here’s what we learned.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Education advocates rally outside of the building where Shelby County's Board of Commissioners meet to discuss funding for Shelby County Schools.

Utah spends about $7,000 per student in its public schools, but gives much more to schools with many poor kids. New York spends more than $18,000 per student, but doesn’t give extra money to high-poverty school districts.

What’s the right number, and who should get the most? The questions are at the heart of many of the heated battles in public education: In Detroit, teachers have complained about buildings that are falling apart, while lawsuits from Washington to New York to Kansas have led to protracted legal fights.

It makes sense to look closely at education spending, since several recent studies link more money in schools to better outcomes for students. But describing the state of school funding in the U.S. is tricky, since schools receive a combination of local, state, and federal dollars and because disparities can exist between states, between districts, and between schools.

That’s why we combed through three recent reports from the Education Law Center, Education Trust, and the Urban Institute, which help explain how big the school funding pot is and how that money is really divvied out.

What stands out is that while poor students necessarily don’t get less money than their affluent peers, they usually don’t get the extra money that funding advocates say is necessary for addressing additional needs. Here are some of the major takeaways.

1. A state’s high-poverty school districts usually don’t get more state and local money than its affluent districts.

In 20 states, both kinds of districts get about the same amount of money. In 12 states, more money went to impoverished districts. But in 16 states, more money actually went to wealthier districts, according to the Education Law Center report. (Alaska and Hawaii were excluded. And like the other reports in this piece, it uses data that are a few years old, in this case running through 2015.)

There were some notable outliers: New Jersey gives 20 percent more money to poor districts, for example, while Nevada gives poor districts 40 percent less.

Funding advocates say a flat distribution is nothing to celebrate, since there is evidence that poor students need more money spent on their schools to reach comparable outcomes.

2. High-poverty and low-poverty schools also tend to get about equal amounts of money from their districts.

Recent research has found that schools serving poorer students tend to get the same amount as, or even a tiny bit more than, other schools. But there are exceptions: in some of the least equitable districts, poor students and students of color get between $300 and $500 less than wealthier and white students.

Starting next school year, the federal education law requires states to report how much is spent at each individual school, which advocates are hoping to pressure districts with disparities to close them.

3. When you zoom out, things look worse for students in high-poverty schools, since they’re more likely to be located in states that spend less on education.

Spending disparities grow when you compare poor school districts nationwide to wealthier ones. Here’s why: poor students are more likely to live in states with weaker economies and that spend less on education.

For example, there’s a greater share of poor kids in Mississippi (which spends about $7,000 per student, according to the Education Law Center) than in Massachusetts (which spends about $15,000 per student).

Education Trust tried to quantify that disparity between states. The civil rights and education organization, led by former U.S. Education Secretary John King, found that American students in poor school districts get an average of about $1,000 less in state and local dollars than those in wealthier districts. This is also an important reminder that states spend widely varying amounts per student.

Bruce Baker, a Rutgers professor and the author of the Education Law Center report, said that gaps like these are concerning, though people should keep in mind that costs of living and other factors also vary. “When you start trying to compare nationally, you really have to find a way to thoroughly correct for a whole bunch of different cost factors,” he said.

4. But federal dollars generally do what they’re designed to do: make school spending more progressive.

The Urban Institute analysis shows that federal money — which accounts for only about 10 percent of total education spending — ensures that in almost all cases, poor districts end up with as much or more money than wealthier districts in the same state. (This doesn’t mean, though, that the federal dollars even out the disparities between states.)

5. When you sort schools based on race, school spending disparities are even worse than when you sort schools by income.

Most studies of school funding gaps focus on those between higher- and lower-poverty schools. But the Education Trust report also compared how states fund districts with more students of color versus those with more white students.

In many cases there were substantial differences: 11 states that sent more or the same to poor districts actually sent less to districts with more students of color (and only one was the reverse).

Another recent analysis found that, even controlling for poverty, Pennsylvania school districts with more black students got less funding. An older study found that districts in the Chicago area with more Hispanic students were especially likely to be financially disadvantaged.

“It’s such a compelling data point for why poverty is not a good proxy for race,” said Ary Amerikaner of Education Trust.

6. There’s no correlation between how much a state spends on schools and whether more dollars go to poorer schools. There’s no correlation between a state’s political leaning and how progressively education dollars are distributed, either.

States that spend the most aren’t necessarily the ones that give the biggest share of money to high-poverty schools, as the New York-to-Utah comparison underscores. There’s also no clear political pattern, at least based on how a state voted for president in 2016, though there is research showing that Democratic governors generally mean more money for higher-poverty districts.

School funding and politics
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Spread the wealth

A few Colorado charter schools won ‘the lottery’ in this year’s round of school construction grants

Samantha Belmontes, 7, tries to keep a foam ball rolling in the center of her tennis racket for as long as she can in a class at Ricardo Flores Magón Academy in 2011. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Five Colorado charter schools are among the nearly three dozen schools getting new roofs, HVAC systems, or even entire new buildings courtesy of state land proceeds, lottery funds, and marijuana tax revenue.

The State Board of Education this month approved $275 million in grants through the Building Excellent Schools Today or BEST program, with schools and districts contributing an additional $172 million for $447 million in total construction projects.

This is the largest award the state has ever given, a 60 percent increase from the nearly $172 million given out last year. It’s also likely to be the largest award for some time to come. With this grant cycle, the board that oversees the BEST program used up its existing ability to issue debt, similar to the limit on a credit card, and next year’s grants will be limited to cash awards of roughly $85 million.

Charter schools traditionally have not done well in the competition for BEST grant money – a sore point for advocates because the schools can’t bond off property tax revenue like school districts can –  but this year, with more to spend overall, the committee that distributes the money also gave more of it to charter schools.

In a typical year, the grant program funds about half of the requests that come in, after prioritizing them based on a number of criteria, including health and safety concerns. This year, almost 70 percent of requests were funded.

Jeremy Meyer, a spokesperson for Colorado Department of Education, said officials in the capital construction program also made a deliberate effort to reach out to charter schools and explain the requirements of the grant program. Some of the successful applicants had applied before and were able to make refinements to this year’s applications. Representatives of charter schools, meanwhile, said this iteration of the BEST board seems more receptive to their needs.

“A lot of it was a function of them having more resources to distribute,” said Dan Schaller of the Colorado League of Charter Schools. “It’s a very positive development, but it’s important to keep it in context that over the last five years, charter schools have received in aggregate less than 1 percent of the funding.”

About 13 percent of Colorado students attend charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run and exempt from some rules.

Legislation passed in the 2018 session increases the amount of marijuana tax money going to the grant program to 90 percent of all recreational marijuana excise tax revenue. Before, it had been capped at $40 million a year, even as the state took in far more pot tax money than was originally projected. Of this money, 12.5 percent will be set aside for charter school facilities needs.

However, state lawmakers balked at allowing the BEST program to borrow off of marijuana revenue, given the uncertain regulatory future under President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is hostile to legal marijuana.

Without the ability to issue new debt, future awards are more likely to go to roof replacements and new heating and cooling systems than to new buildings, like the new elementary school approved in Adams 14 or the new buildings for Ricardo Flores Magón Academy in northwest Denver and Swallows Charter Academy in Pueblo.

Having the state fund a new building for a charter school is “like winning the lottery,” said Jane Ellis, who works with charters to find low-cost financing for their facilities.

This was Flores Magón Academy’s third attempt at getting a BEST grant. The state-authorized charter school serves roughly 300 students from kindergarten through eighth grade, most of them from low-income families. The school sits in a pocket of unincorporated Adams County at West 53rd Avenue and Lowell Boulevard, near Regis University, and most of the school’s families live in Denver.

In 2011, the school bought the Berkeley Gardens Elementary building, which had been shuttered for a decade. The school was built in 1906 and has several additions.

“Each add-on is very unique and reflective of its decade and comes with its own delightful challenges,” said Kaye Taavialma, a former executive director of the school who is working as a consultant on the building project. “We have to be very cognizant and aware of any precipitation.”

The roof leaks, the pipes leak, there aren’t enough bathrooms, and there’s asbestos in the walls and in the glue that holds down multiple layers of carpet. Portions of the school have been blocked off due to mold problems. The office is in the center of the building, without a clear line of sight on the entrances, creating security concerns. During one storm, a window blew out in a classroom. Fortunately, no students were injured, Taavialma said.

The school got $15.5 million from the BEST program and through a waiver only has to contribute $818,000 to the total project cost, rather than the $3.3 million that would normally be required under a state matching formula. The new building will be built on the site of the play fields and should open to students during the 2020-21 school year.

“For our school, this is tremendous because coming up with $3 million would have been darn near impossible,” Taavialma said. “As we see charters continue to proliferate and they’re being asked to move into buildings that either weren’t constructed to be school buildings, or like we experienced, a school building that has been sitting vacant for a long time, I hope this is a trend that continues.”

You can see the full list of grant winners here.

Fund Students First

Memphis locals rally for extra school funding, demanding it be spent on student needs

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
About 40 education advocates met before today's commission meeting to rally for more direct funding for student needs.

Lobbying for how Shelby County Schools should spend an extra $12.7 million just granted from the county’s surplus, a crowd of 40 parents, students, and education advocates lined the glass-paneled doors of the county commission office today and demanded the money be used to “fund students first.”

But after the commission voted to use the funds only for one-time expenses instead of recurring costs, it is unclear that the advocates’ demands will be met.

Among the crowd was Brenda Crawford, a former student at Georgian Hills Middle, where she said she’s had “firsthand experience with ripped textbooks, leaky roofs, permanent subs, lack of technology, and cut programs.”

Now a rising sophomore at Trezevant High School, Crawford joined Campaign for School Equity’s Student Advocacy Program to push for better college preparation.

“If we get more funding for health specialists and AP classes, then our academic growth can go higher and then kids can have a better learning experience,” she said.

Participating organizations included Stand for Children Tennessee, Campaign for School Equity, Tennessee Charter School Center, Shelby County Young Democrats, the Memphis Grassroots Organizing Coalition, Memphis Education Fund, Memphis LIFT, Catholic peace group Pax Christi, and grassroots organization Gray Panthers. Leaders in these groups know the power of collective action. The last time they stood together, the commission approved a $22 million boost for local schools.

“Partnership is obviously really important,” said Carl Schneider, community organizer for Stand for Children. “I think sometimes these education advocacy groups are seen as really disparate, and funding for our schools is something everyone can really rally behind.”

District leaders originally planned to use the funds for additional services such as behavioral specialists, workforce training, school resource officers, and school counselors.

“Our schools need every one of those things,” said Daniel Henley, a pastor at Journey Christian Church. “And I think this $12.7 million is just a start… Yes to behavioral specialists, yes to guidance counselors – we need them all.”

But some parents are wary that the money may not be spent responsibly, and they urged each other to hold school leaders accountable.

“I don’t want you to make more administrative positions, or make more offices,” said Mahalia Brown, whose son just graduated from Memphis Business Academy. “Make sure the money goes to the kids, to the teachers, to people who actually need it, not just administration.”

Sarah Carpenter, executive director of Memphis LIFT, said she wants the money to go to efforts that tackle adverse childhood experiences as well as special education and facilities fees for charter schools. Her biggest wish, though, was that the money not go to waste.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Commissioner Eddie Jones, a supporter of the extra funding, talks with Memphis LIFT parents before the meeting.

“If you got all that money before, and now you’re coming back asking for more money, you’re just throwing money at things and ain’t nothing happening,” she said. “You don’t give kids $100 to go to the mall and they come back with a pack of candy and all their money is gone.”

Commissioners Van Turner and Eddie Jones are both graduates of Memphis public schools. At the pre-meeting rally, they echoed support for additional funding – and for spending it wisely.

“Funding education and funding education properly are the greatest public safety platform or plan that we can have,” Turner said.

If the commission can come back with a plan to make a “smart dollar investment” in its local public schools, said state representative Raumesh Akbari, then political groups like the Shelby County Democratic Caucus and the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators will have renewed momentum.

“You’ll give us the credibility when we go into this new administration in 2019 and we talk about sending some state dollars down to match those county dollars,” he said.