Even within the same district, some wealthy schools get millions more than poor ones
By Tara García Mathewson
The Hechinger Report
At Ronald D. O'Neal Elementary School in Elgin, none of the third graders could read and write at grade level, according to state tests in 2019. Nearly 90% of the students are considered low-income and nearly three-quarters are labeled English learners, meaning that the state language arts test assesses their reading and writing ability in a language they're still trying to learn.
Nine miles away sits Centennial Elementary School in Bartlett, where 73% of third graders met grade-level standards on that same test. A fifth of Centennial's student body is considered low-income, and 17% get extra support as they learn English.
The state has celebrated Centennial for "exemplary academic performance." It designates O'Neal as a school in need of targeted assistance.
But despite its low performance and its students' needs, O'Neal received $9,094 per student in 2019 in state and local funding compared to Centennial's $10,559. If O'Neal had received Centennial's per-pupil funding, it would have meant an extra $789,905 in its budget: Money that could have covered more -- or more experienced -- teachers, social workers or home-school liaisons, or paid for new programs to address students' academic and nonacademic needs.
While wealthier school districts routinely spend significantly more money to run their public schools, the disparity between Centennial and O'Neal can't be attributed to the relative wealth in their communities. Both schools are part of a single district, Elgin Area School District U-46, Illinois' second largest.
Kids who need more support to overcome barriers to academic achievement are routinely shortchanged. U-46 was one of 53 districts across the United States that spent a statistically significant amount less state and local money on high-poverty schools than on lower-poverty schools, according to a new Hechinger Report analysis of how districts disburse funding. In another 263 districts, the level of spending on each school had little or no connection to the number of students in poverty, despite the higher needs often present in low-income schools. It's the first time this kind of data has been compiled and analyzed nationally, and some of the spending gaps are extreme.
Until this year, funding disparities between schools in the same district were hard to identify. Most districts didn't budget in a way that allowed comparisons of school-level spending. They reported only districtwide averages, making disparities across districts the primary fodder for conversations about educational inequities. Now, a federal financial reporting requirement has taken effect, demanding that states report per-student spending by school -- just as they report student performance by school -- and forcing transparency about disparate spending inside district lines.
Hechinger's analysis of state and local spending by school included nearly 700 districts (those with 15 or more schools) from 40 states that made the data available. The data was from the 2018-19 academic year, with the exception of Nevada, which has released only the data from 2017-18. Additionally, five states -- Maine, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio and Oregon -- reported combined federal, state and local spending. The analysis focused on state and local spending because federal dollars are explicitly intended to supplement district budgets, rather than provide an alternative revenue stream. Districts that use the federal dollars to equalize their spending violate federal policy.
Hechinger's analysis found multimillion-dollar funding disparities between schools in the same communities. A lot of factors affect school-level spending, but a handful of district practices routinely drive these disparities. Schools with the wealthiest students tend to draw the most experienced teachers, who cost more. And because small schools cost more to operate without economies of scale, districts that happen to have more of these schools in higher-income areas might end up spending more on wealthier kids. Magnet programs that often serve wealthier student populations drive up spending, both because they are generally small schools and because they frequently get extra funding to support specialized programming.
Marguerite Roza, an economist at Georgetown University and the director of its Edunomics Lab, has studied how spending choices play out in district budgets.
"Those are very much district choices, but districts would say, 'What? We never made an intentional decision to give more money to the wealthier schools,'" Roza said.
The enrollment and staffing patterns that district leaders allow can have a major impact on children's outcomes. Magnet schools tend to skim districts' highest-performing kids and most engaged families, pulling them from elsewhere in a district where they might contribute to building stronger schools. Teachers with more than five years of experience tend to be more effective and more likely to stay in the field for the long term, boosting student performance in schools where they dominate the teaching force. And small schools tend to offer more attention to individual students, giving their populations a better school experience, overall.
In Elgin, where Ronald D. O'Neal is located, the median household value is nearly $100,000 less than in Bartlett, where Centennial is. The poverty rate is three times higher. Elgin City Councilman Corey Dixon was born in Elgin and graduated from U-46. He had no idea an elementary school his constituents attend was getting so much less in per-pupil funding than a school in a wealthier portion of the same district. But he's not surprised.
He has long taken issue with the "broken" way our country finances its schools: primarily with local property taxes that unfairly benefit students from wealthy communities, which are often also majority white because of the U.S.'s long history of segregation and racist policies. Sixty-five percent of Centennial's students are white. Five percent of O'Neal's are -- the vast majority, 85%, are Latino. Dixon has three daughters in the district. He is Black and has always known that students who look like his own children are on the losing end of glaring achievement gaps nationwide. Now he sees they're the victims of school funding disparities within individual districts, too.
"That's broken," Dixon said. "That's a problem. Who could argue that it's not?"
Besides basic ideas about fairness, spending inequities are a problem because having more money matters when it's used well. Although researchers -- and elected officials -- have debated the value of increased educational funding, new evidence suggests that when schools serving low-income students do spend additional money in key ways, they greatly boost student success.
Rucker Johnson, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, and his team have drawn a line from per-student spending to better standardized test scores and graduation rates, findings they think bolster the argument that more money makes a difference. "At every stage, higher spending led to significant increases in student outcomes and narrowing of achievement gaps by race and poverty status," Johnson said his forthcoming paper will show.
In Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300, Superintendent Frederick Heid has prioritized school-level spending as a route to educational equity since he took over the position six years ago. Beyond the needs of kids from low-income homes, Heid said the district allocates extra money to schools serving large populations of students with disabilities and students who are still learning English. The district also provides more funding to schools with preschool programs and to a pilot program for students with four or more "adverse childhood experiences," including exposure to abuse, neglect and household dysfunction.
"It does result in different funding amounts going to different schools, but we believe that is the best way to get to equity for our students," Heid said.
Still, even in a district with such explicit spending priorities, inequities between individual schools remain. Golfview Elementary School in Carpentersville, for example, serves about 550 students, 86% of whom are considered low-income, 69% of whom are English learners and about 13% of whom get special education services. Algonquin Lakes Elementary School in Algonquin serves about 425 students, with less than half its students in poverty, less than one-fifth English learners and about the same proportion in special education. Yet, Algonquin Lakes gets more than $2,000 more per-pupil than Golfview.
Susan Harkin, District 300's chief operating officer, said this can largely be attributed to Golfview Elementary School's early career teaching force and Algonquin Lakes' shrinking special education population.
District leaders around the country have had a reckoning over the last year as they prepared and reported their per-school spending data to the state for the first time because of the new federal requirement. The transparency mandate was tucked into the 2015 update of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act but didn't require states to report that data until June 30 of this year.
Some districts have defended spending less on higher-poverty schools. Certain special education programs can drive up costs, for example. In U-46, Superintendent Tony Sanders also pointed to costs associated with special education services as a reason that some schools in higher-income communities end up becoming the most expensive.
But he doesn't let his district off the hook entirely.
"We are inequitable," Sanders said. "And we are working on that."
This past year, with extra money from the state thanks to a revised funding formula, U-46 placed more assistant principals in its high-poverty schools. It also reduced class sizes in the early elementary grades in some of those buildings and bought more mobile devices for schools that didn't yet have enough for every student. And Sanders said administrators are brainstorming ways to spread out access to the district's best teachers, perhaps virtually, so that students get more opportunities than the ones available to them in their assigned neighborhood schools.
In U-46, the financial data has been tucked into the online state report cards -- in a tab labeled District Environment -- since last October, but conversations about it have mainly been among school officials.
Traci Ellis is a former U-46 school board member, Elgin native, and chief human resources and equity officer and chief legal officer at the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora. The Ronald D. O'Neal Elementary School is named for her father, a longtime educator in U-46. While she no longer lives in Elgin, she has made educational equity her life's work, and she was disappointed to learn of U-46's spending trend. The district's slogan is "academic success for all," and a frequent tagline is "all means all."
"Budgets speak to where priorities lie, and if the district is going to have equity as a priority, and it says that it does, then we should be able to see that borne out in how it spends money," Ellis said.
Disheartening as U-46's first-year data is, along with the knowledge that similar spending trends exist all over the country, Ellis sees a silver lining: "So many of the problems in school districts with respect to resolving equity issues require some outside third-party intervention," she said. "This is not one of them. ... It does not require laws changing and getting legislators to understand that schools need more money."
Districts already have the power to reshape their own budgets. They just have to muster the will to do so.
After a flurry of equity-minded initiatives last school year, Sanders had hoped the district's spending trend would be different in the 2020 update to the state report cards. The changes weren't enough, and according to the latest state data, released Friday, U-46 still spends fewer state and local dollars on its higher-poverty schools, overall. Sanders said in a written statement that the district is disappointed its investments last year didn't change its spending trend.
"With this second year of data in mind, we will work to be more deliberate about addressing school funding decisions as we develop our Fiscal Year 2022 budget," he said. Ellis and Dixon, the city councilman, will be among those watching.
• This story about school funding disparities was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger's newsletter at hechingerreport.org.