For public school funding, tax base not the main issue
The Center for American Progress — a non-partisan educational foundation that seeks answers to uniquely American issues — has recently released a critical report, outlining the per-pupil spending inequality between white students and their minority counterparts.
The report, “Unequal Education: Federal Loophole Enables Lower Spending on Students of Color,” focuses on the little-known “comparability loophole.”
“Variation within a district is largely due to district budgeting policies that ignore how much money teachers actually earn. When veteran teachers elect to move to low-need schools in richer, whiter neighborhoods, they bring higher salaries to those schools,” report author Ary Spatig-Amerikaner wrote in her summary. “New teachers, who tend to start out in high-need schools, serving many students of color and poor students, earn comparatively low salaries which leads to significantly lower per-pupil spending in the schools with the highest concentrations of nonwhite students.
“In 2009 the Obama administration showed that it recognized the importance of this issue by including a requirement in the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 that districts report actual state and local spending on school-level personnel and non-personnel resources in school year 2008–09.”
Spatig-Amerikaner used a complex formula to arrive at her findings that included data from the Act while also factoring in teacher pay and transfers, which contribute to the loophole.
“First, across the country schools spent $334 more on every white student than on every nonwhite student. To get this figure I simply divided each school’s adjusted total spending into “white” and “nonwhite” shares based on the proportion of students who are white,” Spatig-Amerikaner wrote in her summary. “Then I added each of these “white” and “nonwhite” shares across the country and divided by the total number of white and nonwhite students.
“This is a nontrivial spending difference, given that the median per-pupil spending was $4,038. The $334 average shortfall is 8 percent of the median per-pupil spending,” continued Spatig-Amerikaner’s explanation. “More than one-third of the students represented by this new dataset attend schools that are either more than 90 percent white or more than 90 percent nonwhite. The spending difference between these schools is large. The mostly white schools spent $733 more per student than the mostly nonwhite schools, or 18 percent of the median per-pupil spending nationwide.”
Spatig-Amerikaner also detailed what those per-pupil numbers would mean for a medium-sized school.
“The average-sized, mostly minority school has 605 students. This means that the average school serving 90 percent or more students of color would see an annual increase of more than $443,000 if it were to be brought up to the same spending level as its almost-entirely-white sister schools,” Spatig-Amerikaner wrote. “This funding could pay the salary for 12 additional first-year teachers or nine veteran teachers. Alternatively, this funding could pay for any number of other useful personnel or resources such as school counselors, teacher coaches, or laptop computers.”
Spatig-Amerikaner’s report blasted the loophole, casting it as another method of stunting the academic growth and achievement of minority students.
“The traditional explanation — that variation in schools’ per-pupil spending stems almost entirely from different property-tax bases between school districts — is inaccurate,” Spatig-Amerikaner wrote. “In fact, approximately 40 percent of variation in per-pupil spending occurs within school districts.
“Changing a particular provision of federal education law — closing the so-called comparability loophole — would result in districts making more equitable expenditures on students of color.”
While Spatig-Amerikaner’s data shows the $334 gap between per-pupil funding between white students and nonwhite students, the report also shows a 10 percent funding decrease at any particular school or district that experiences a 10 percent increase in the non-white school population — which would equal a decrease of an additional $75 in per-pupil funding.
Conversely, Spatig-Amerikaner notes, those numbers drop to $192 and $51, respectively, if that loophole is closed.
“This shift in spending would not by itself fix the unequal spending on education now evident in school districts across our nation … But it would go a long way toward ensuring that the vision of Brown v. Board of Education is implemented in the 21st century.”
Hispanic and Latino students are affected by this loophole as well, said National Council of La Raza Senior Policy Analyst Erika Beltran.
“Given the growing number of Latino students, this [issue] is of great importance. There are 12.1 million Hispanic students in public schools, and one third are English language learners,” Beltran said. “Their achievement is still lagging behind, as only 19 percent are proficient in math. Moreover, there’s a 63 percent graduation rate.
“According to this report, these students are missing out on resources, which could provide ESL specialists and parent engagement programs,” Beltran continued. “Especially in Texas and California, the two states that produce half the nation’s drop outs.”