Do school districts allocate more resources to economically disadvantaged students?


In the middle, district superintendent Laura Winters, board attorney Michael Inzelbuch (Winter's left), board member Heriberto Rodriguez (Winter's right) along with school administration staff.Jcc 8064

Policymakers across local, state, and federal governments regularly make decisions about how to allocate resources to U.S. public schools. For students, these decisions matter. They can mean the difference between having access to smaller classes, more experienced teachers, newer materials and facilities, additional support staff, and richer extracurricular opportunities. Research confirms, too, that resources make a difference, especially for the most disadvantaged and marginalized groups of students. 

For decades, advocates and researchers have raised alarms about inequities in resource allocation and pushed for reforms to the country’s school finance systems. These inequities have roots in the complex, decentralized ways in which public schools are funded. States are constitutionally responsible for the provision of public education and play key roles in creating school finance policies and frameworks. In fact, differences in state policies and resources have produced large state-to-state differences in per-pupil funding levels—differences that tend to leave fewer resources for groups of students that are concentrated in lower-spending states (such as Hispanic/Latino students). However, state officials are not the only important actors in shaping which funds reach which students. Local officials are key decision-makers, too. This is because states give localities a great deal of discretion in how they raise and spend school funds. This deference to localities—coupled with stark resource inequalities across communities in the same state—can give rise to large within-state differences in per-pupil funding, with students in low-income, low-wealth communities at the greatest risk of attending underfunded schools.  

The federal government also plays an important role in school finance, albeit more limited in its share of total public school funding. Historically, the federal government has focused on directing funds to students whose needs are often unmet by state and local school finance systems, such as students in poverty and students with disabilities. This includes Title I funds via the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was initially passed in 1965 and has been renewed periodically since (most recently, as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA). Title I funds are targeted to communities with high concentrations of poverty. Passed in the height of the civil rights movement in the U.S., the subtext of this infusion of funding was to narrow racial inequalities between white and Black communities. Now nearly six decades old, Title I has proven to be a key lever in addressing finance inequalities between racial groups and raising the floor on the resources available to public schools, even as some scholars have argued that the funding formulas embedded in Title I could be tweaked to better serve disadvantaged communities (particularly in low-spending states). 

“These inequities have roots in the complex, decentralized ways in which public schools are funded.”

This mix of local, state, and federal revenue streams creates complexity in understanding how funds reach students—and which stakeholders have the most powerful influence in determining those allocations. Research on how funds are allocated to school districts indicates that local funds are often regressive (i.e., with higher per-pupil local funding for districts in wealthier areas) while state and, especially, federal funds tend to be allocated more progressively.  

However, seeing how funds are allocated to districts provides a very limited view of which resources reach which students. If district officials—for example, school board members and superintendents—choose to direct their resources to schools with wealthier families, then any progress toward closing funding gaps could be undone at the district level. Fortunately, new data reporting requirements in ESSA have enriched the availability of school-level data and opened new frontiers for school finance research. Nationwide, we can now see how funds are allocated to individual schools in ways that had not been possible even a few years ago. This has generated a recent surge of research examining how resources are allocated within districts to schools that serve different student populations.  

This report contributes to this blossoming research in school finance by examining how resources are allocated within districts. We focus on both extremely local levels (e.g., showing district-specific estimates of how districts allocate funds to schools serving different student populations) and more national trends (e.g., examining whether certain types of districts nationwide tend to have more progressive within-district funding). We also focus on questions of how those resources are used by examining expenditures associated with teachers and staffing.  

The report is divided into two chapters with an accompanying methodological appendix. 

Chapter 1 examines within-district resource allocations. Specifically, it compares per-pupil funding in schools with higher and lower shares of economically disadvantaged students within the same district. This type of exploration of within-district progressivity has only recently become possible at a national scale. We calculate and map within-district spending progressivity ratios and look for patterns in which types of districts are more progressive and regressive. This chapter focuses especially on questions of governance and politics, motivated by the idea that resource allocations are determined by a complex set of government institutions and political actors who influence them. 

We find that within-district resource allocations are, on average, slightly more progressive than regressive. We estimate that 74% of public school students attend districts that allocate more money to schools with higher shares of economically disadvantaged students. However, this means that many districts have regressive allocation patterns—or roughly even allocations that may be too small to narrow today’s opportunity gaps. We observe that, even within districts, federal funds are allocated much more progressively than state/local funds and that within-district allocations tend to be more progressive in some areas (e.g., cities) than others (e.g., suburbs and towns). Notably, though, at a time when national partisan politics seem to be defining more of our education landscape, we find only modest correlations between local partisan leanings and within-district spending progressivity. Finally, this chapter discusses what we still do not know about resource allocation at a national level: how resources are allocated within schools to students of different backgrounds. 

“Our analysis shows that disadvantaged students have systematically lower access to experienced teachers across all analysis states and within most districts.”

Chapter 2 explores the interplay between financial and teacher resources. We analyze staffing and spending patterns across six states to explore the extent of resource inequalities and how they manifest. The widespread use of fixed salary schedules combined with documented teacher sorting patterns—where the least experienced and credentialed teachers are more commonly hired in disadvantaged school settings—should theoretically result in more money being spent on teachers in more affluent settings, all else equal. Whether and how adverse teacher sorting influences spending outcomes is the question that motivates our analysis in this chapter. 

Our analysis shows that disadvantaged students have systematically lower access to experienced teachers across all analysis states and within most districts. Simultaneously, most districts are slightly progressive when it comes to teacher and instructional spending, but we document regressive spending patterns across states where we have more accurate measurements of teacher salaries. This seemingly contradictory result is reconciled by examining staffing patterns that systematically put more teachers and other instructional support staff into schools serving high-need students, essentially exchanging teaching quality for teacher quantity. Though this finding offers some level of financial equity in spite of the inequity in teacher resources, we discuss implications of this tradeoff and question whether it is sufficient or sustainable.  

Read Chapter 1: “Which districts allocate resources progressively?” →