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Confirming What We Knew: Poor Students Really Do Get a Raw Deal on School Funding

By Roberto Viramontes

December 2, 2011

A recent study by the Department of Education sheds new light on funding issues with our public schools. The outcome of the report, Comparability of State and Local Expenditures among Schools and Districts, confirms what many education stakeholders and school funding researchers have been arguing for years: Students from low-income communities and students of color get the short-end of the stick when it comes to receiving their fair share of school funding. The data was collected from 13,000 school districts, which were required to self-report how they spend money in order to be a recipient of the 2009 stimulus dollars.

The report provides clear evidence that districts have failed to ensure their high poverty schools get an equitable distribution of local and state funding. The same holds true for Title I schools - Title I dollars were intended to help districts cope with the additional costs of educating poor students, but in reality are being used to fill school budget holes.

Almost 50% of high poverty schools that currently receive Title I money were funded at least 10 percent below the average school in the district. While this is not news to most education advocates, this chronic underfunding is alarming nonetheless. Moreover, this report marks the first time this widespread practice has been captured in one place. Other key facts from the report showed poor schools spend less on school personnel leading to possible understaffing. For example:

  • More than 40 percent of Title I schools had lower personnel expenditures per pupil than did non–Title I schools at the same school grade level
  • One-third of higher-poverty schools (above their district’s poverty average) had lower per-pupil personnel expenditures than lower-poverty schools in their districts at the same school grade level.

This grim reality in our public schools stems from the comparability loophole within the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).There has been movement recently in Congress to address the comparability issue: Representative Chaka Fattah (D-PA) developed House legislation on it, as did Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Thad Cochran (R-MI). Just how aggressive the Department of Education will be in addressing this funding equity issue for our most deserving students, however, remains to be seen—after all,the recently unveiled ESEA flexibility waivers mention nothing about the comparability loophole. Despite this, Secretary Duncan and the Department could tackle the problem by enforcing other ESEA provisions that deal with nondiscrimination in the rights and benefits of public schools on the basis of race and ethnicity. Whether or not the Secretary will act on this blatant inequity is unclear.

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