Have you ever wanted to know more about school funding and finance? Edugeek alert…I have! Even if we don’t find it as interesting as the latest People magazine, having a basic understanding of school funding can help us in our work as teacher leaders. In order to find some answers about school finance in our Policy Fluency class at Mount Holyoke College, we invited guest expert Superintendent Benny Gooden from Arkansas, a superintendent for over 30 years, to help us deepen our understanding of school finance. Here’s a little slice of what we learned: Seven things you didn’t know about school funding.
- The federal government actually pays very little of our public education funding. Between 8-10%, actually. It varies from state to state, but education funding equates to about 45% from the state, 45% from local. Local funding is primarily from property taxes, which is why there can be so much variability with per student spending. Think of it like this: the bigger and more expensive the houses, the higher the property taxes, the more local money for schools. And speaking of the large spectrum of per student spending…
- The average per pupil spending varies nationwide by $13,500. New York is at the top of the list of states, with an average at just under $20,000. Utah is at the bottom with a whooping $6500 (gulp!). And keep in mind, the difference in per pupil spending also varies district to district. For example, in New York the most spent per pupil was $140,000 and the lowest was $14,000. See a map of per pupil spending and an extensive NPR piece here.
- Local communities have been paying for education for centuries, and the devil played his part in making this happen. In the Massachusetts Bay Colonies of 1647, many Puritans were worried about all of the newcomers who couldn’t read. This was seen as one of Satan’s plans, keeping people from the scripture. So a law was passed that if a village grew to over 50 families, the community must hire and pay for a teacher. When Horace Mann was Secretary of Education in the 1830s, legislation was passed that required a village to support a school once it grew past a certain point. Land represented wealth at that point (much like today), so a tax was enacted based on land to support the new school law.
- There was more than one ‘last stand’ at the Alamo. One major case in school funding was San Antonio vs Rodriguez, which was seen by many as an extension of Brown versus the Board of Education. In this case, the argument was made that the Texas funding formula was unfair to students in poorer districts. This case made it all the way up to the Supreme Court, but the federal court failed to support the plaintiff, Rodriguez. The Supreme Court found that the Constitution does not state anything about the right to equal funding with education. This was a turning point in education funding, with the power to fund education (and tackle equity issues) being shuffled down to the states.
- There are 13 states currently in school funding lawsuits. Currently, the states defending their funding formulas are: AZ, CA, CT, FL, KS, NJ, NM, NY, PA, SC, TN, TX, and WA. Many of these have to do with inequitable funding and involve districts or individuals. And almost every state has been in a funding lawsuit at one point in history regarding adequacy and equity, with San Antonio vs Rodriguez starting a spring of lawsuits since the 1970s.
- School funding has been called “one of the sleeper civil rights issues of our time.” Inequity and inadequacy of school funding has been a social justice issue for decades. In a Washington Post article, Wade Henderson, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and Leadership Conference Education Fund, called it “one of the sleeper civil rights issues of our time.” As there is a tidal wave of activism regarding civil rights issues in education, this seems like it should be at the center of the advocacy target.
- Budgets are public — know how to access them. As teachers and parents, we can have influence on school funding. Know where to find your local school budget and when your school committee meets to discuss those monetary issues. Be informed. Benny recommends having an understanding of the big picture and encouraging our colleagues to do the same.
I’m often asked by teachers “How can I get involved?” And the answer is easy: Stay informed. Having a working knowledge of school funding is something that can help us in every aspect of our work as teacher leaders. It’s powerful information to have in our back pockets (or should I say, pocketbooks).
Megan Allen is a National Board Certified Teacher and the 2010 Florida Teacher of the Year. She currently works as the director of Master of Arts in Teacher Leadership at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. Megan blogs at Musings of a Red Headed Teacher and is a member of the CTQ Collaboratory.
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