Do school districts allocate more resources to economically disadvantaged students?

Computer stations are seen in a classroom at Lyman High School in Longwood on the day before classes begin for the 2021-22 school year. Seminole County Florida Public Schools have implemented a face covering/mask mandate for students for 30 days unless a parent chooses to opt out of the requirement. (Photo by Paul Hennessy / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)No Use Germany.

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.  

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Chapter 1

Chapter 1: Which districts allocate resources progressively?

Samantha Wiik's fourth grade class does an activity comparing the positive outcomes of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) to their word of the week, "celebration" at Kratzer Elementary School in Allentown, Pennsylvania, U.S. April 13, 2021. Students drew on their desks to visually portray this idea with dry erasable markers. Picture taken April 13, 2021. REUTERS/Hannah Beier

Authors: Jon Valant, Nicolas Zerbino

In the 1930s, Harold D. Lasswell, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, published a book that set out to explain how individuals and groups secure political power and, in turn, the resources that accompany that power. In the decades since, Lasswell’s book titled, “Politics: Who Gets What, When, How,” has become a shorthand definition for politics itself. In a world of scarce resources, understanding who has power—and what they want and do with it—is fundamental to understanding “who gets what.”

In education, “who gets what” has real consequences. For a student, attending a better-funded school can mean access to more experienced teachers, smaller class sizes, richer extracurricular offerings, and more modern facilities and materials. These types of resources make a difference. C. Kirabo Jackson and Claire Mackevicius analyzed 31 studies of the causal effects of K-12 public school spending on student outcomes. Twenty-eight of those studies found positive effects from increased spending. Jackson and Mackevicius estimate that increasing per-pupil spending by $1,000 for four years is associated with increases of 0.04 standard deviations on test scores, 1.9 percentage points on high school graduation rates, and 2.7 percentage points on college-going rates. The positive effects were evident across student subgroups but less pronounced for economically advantaged students.  

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Chapter 2

Chapter 2: Does teacher sorting contribute to financial inequalities?

teacher looking at students work

Authors: Michael Hansen, Nicolas Zerbino

Two parallel movements in education policy over recent decades have attempted to reduce inequalities in public schools, though inequalities of different forms. On one side, schools in the U.S. have historically spent lower amounts on a per-pupil basis in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities than those in more affluent areas. On the other side, research has shown teachers matter greatly to students’ immediate and long-term outcomes, but student access to quality teaching is stacked against those from disadvantaged communities.

Both problems have commanded policy attention in the modern era of education reform, though progress on these issues has been uneven. States have made important advances in school finance reform over recent decades, significantly narrowing spending gaps (though important gaps still exist in some contexts). Conversely, progress on the teacher quality side has been less encouraging. Evidence shows teacher qualifications among entering teachers has shown modest improvement, but policy efforts to strengthen the teacher workforce (primarily during the Race to the Top era) were often perceived as federal overreach by states and with hostility among teachers, with little discernable progress at scale.

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Chapter 3

Methodological appendix

Students arrive for class at Mahnomen Elementary School in Mahnomen, Minnesota September 26, 2013. The U.S. government may have headed off some of the most dire predictions about the "sequester," but over seven months, the across-the-board spending cut has thrown sand into the gears of the economic recovery. Mahnomen school district, which serves the White Earth Indian reservation in Minnesota, lost 3 percent of its funding due to the sequester. The district didn't replace a teacher who retired and has scaled back on homework tutoring and an alternative-school program for teenage mothers. Another year of cuts could force the school to lay off teachers and scale back bus service, superintendent Jeff Bisek says. To match Insight USA-BUDGET/SEQUESTER  Picture taken September 26, 2013.   REUTERS/Dan Koeck   (UNITED STATES - Tags: EDUCATION POLITICS BUSINESS) - GM1E99S159X01

Read more to learn about the methodological process behind “Do school districts allocate more resources to economically disadvantaged students?” by Brown Center researchers Jon Valant, Michael Hansen, and Nicolas Zerbino.

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  • Acknowledgements and disclosures

    The authors thank Melissa Carmona, Marguerite Franco, Maile Symonds, and Lauren Worley for excellent research assistance. We also thank Katharine Meyer, Rachel Perera, Marguerite Roza, and Kenneth Shores for their thoughtful comments and suggestions. Another thank you for Adelle Patten and Antonio Saadipour for their communications contributions. Finally, we acknowledge generous financial support from the Gates Foundation in enabling the Brown Center to conduct this work.