We live in an era where children are using iPads in the classroom, but we've inherited a funding system from a time of horse-drawn carriages.
America's schools are faced with enormous challenges. Thankfully, alongside the important efforts of government and school districts, there are a host of organizations working at all levels to find and implement innovative solutions to ensure all of our kids get a great education. Over the course of my career I've been lucky enough to work with some of the best organizations and brightest minds tackling the hardest problems plaguing our schools.
But having come to the field as a former finance official, I've become convinced that we're not going to be able to move forward successfully without overhauling the way we fund education. We live in an era where children are using iPads in the classroom, but we've inherited a funding system from a time of horse-drawn carriages. That mismatch creates increasing barriers to innovation. Over a hundred years ago, children were routed to one schoolhouse governed by one elected body—and that worked for us. But as our schools have changed, our funding systems have not followed.
...we can't address socioeconomic integration without taking on school funding reform.
Today, over 4,000 community schools provide wraparound services that improve student lives and break down barriers to academic achievement, yet they are hindered by poorly coordinated and restrictive revenue sources. There are 2.3 million students enrolled in public charter schools, and that's a concrete reality, not a hypothetical scenario or philosophical question. Yet the adult debate over public schools of choice has left the schools that serve these kids unable to access full funding for their students. Our schools continue to be funded in large part based on arbitrary borders that were drawn for the antiquated delivery system of yesteryear.
Those borders also divide students along socioeconomic and racial lines. More than 50 years after the Brown v. Board decision, our education systems should look very different than they do today. We won't shake our long history of denying opportunity to certain classes of students until we address socioeconomic integration, and we can't address socioeconomic integration without taking on school funding reform.
...a growing gap between resources and expectations is emerging.
While this is especially true in many of our cities—like Detroit, Buffalo, and Youngstown—the problem exists everywhere. We're asking our schools to educate children to compete in a completely different market, with higher standards and bigger stakes than existed in the past. Our communities need a new workforce in order to reconstitute and thrive—yet as property tax bases shrink in our most vulnerable cities, a growing gap between resources and expectations is emerging. These struggling population hubs highlight our education funding system's three critical flaws:
Problem One: The system is often arbitrary, and creates inequities in opportunity between children—even those with the same needs. Take Canton and Toledo, two largely urban districts in Ohio. These two districts serve the same general demographic of students, yet the state's complex and convoluted funding formula provides $5,000 more per student enrolled in Toledo public schools than it does for students living in the similarly situated community of Canton.
Problem Two: Our reliance on antiquated school-funding models creates impermeable borders that segregate along socioeconomic lines. In most school districts, funds generated from property taxes make up 45–60% of all money available for schools. Over the years, impoverished areas have been walled off from their wealthier neighbors—forcing students with the most dramatic needs into isolation. Consider Camden, where 45% of students live in poverty (90% of these students are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch). The city itself has such low wealth that local property taxes only yield $596 per student. There are 32 other school systems within a 5-mile radius of Camden public schools, and on average, each district serves fewer than 2,100 students.
Lawnside, less than 7 miles from the center core of Camden, raises more than $18,000 per student from local property taxes. As a result of this incongruity, the state is forced to contribute $10,000 more per student to Camden than Lawnside (approximately $25k and $15k, respectively). The economics of the model, therefore, are illogical—even in a progressively funded state like New Jersey, where the state is making up millions of dollars in lost local tax revenue for impoverished schools.
Many other states never make up the difference between high- and low-wealth districts. 23 states in the US spend more per pupil in affluent areas versus poor areas, despite the much greater needs of students in low-income communities. And the issue isn't just disparate resources—it's also the lost benefits of integration. Students who attend a socioeconomically integrated school are 68% more likely to enroll in a four-year college. By upholding borders that create forced segregation, we're doing a disservice to children on both sides of the line.
Problem Three: In many states, school funding models still privilege the traditional model of education delivery. Many state formulas, including those in Georgia and Tennessee, still fund students using outdated school-based assumptions, driven largely by teacher salary, class segments, and traditional administrative structures. These formulas made sense in 1986 when Georgia passed their "Quality Basic Education" formula—but they just don't align with the delivery of education in the 21st century. Though charter schools have been a part of our public-education system for over a quarter of a century, in 36 states charters aren't given access to local property tax funds. This translates to a system wherein charter schools, though serving students of the same general demographic as their companion traditional districts, are funded $3,814 per pupil less than their peers, on average.
More generally, these funding systems create a disincentive for our public schools to innovate. Consider Georgia's education formula, where 28% of state funds are tied directly to a "training and experience" salary supplement for teachers. Longevity and professional skills should be rewarded in every workplace (especially teaching), but setting those rewards at the state level hurts students in districts with young teachers—most often poor, urban areas with high turnover—by shifting funds to more affluent schools. This policy ties up state dollars and limits district-level innovation while unfairly penalizing students for community conditions out of their control. The worth of a child's education should not be gauged by the neighborhood they grow up in, or the age of their teacher.
...school funding has become more an issue of politics than policy...
The bottom line is that school funding has become more an issue of politics than policy, and that's not good for kids. The lines we drew around schools were created for another time. If we were able to wipe the slate clean and re-imagine the system, it would look radically different than it does today. We would fund schools equitably, regardless of governance structure. We'd fund schools based on their students' needs, and provide additional funds for struggling communities. We would draw school-district boundaries logically, aligned with geography, economies of scale, and municipal structure, rather than with property wealth.
We founded EdBuild with the mission of creating a more logical and equitable school funding system that will allow public schools to innovate and better serve their students and communities. This is hard work. It will be politically difficult at times. But I am fully convinced that it's critical to the future of education, our children, and our communities. In the coming weeks, EdBuild will be publishing posts that highlight each of these points with more clarity and further detail. I invite you to come back regularly, explore our work, and engage in an honest debate about these issues with myself and the rest of the EdBuild team.
— Rebecca Sibilia