Playing the Game and Missing the Point: The Wrong Education Funding Conversation

Playing the Game and Missing the Point: The Wrong Education Funding Conversation

A version of this blog post was previously featured on Education Post

We often hear this phrase in public education: “As a nation, how much money we spend on education doesn’t matter; it’s how we’re spending it that’s important.”

I’ve come to realize that this small truth hides a much bigger falsehood.We’re missing the point when we talk about school funding in the aggregate, or with averages. So while it’s true that our national average funding per student has increased significantly, what matters much more is the picture when we zoom in: who’s making the investment, who receives the funding, and which students need it most? That’s what EdBuild tried to show with our report last week about the education funding that comes from the California lottery, which revealed that program actually harms poor communities, even though it increases the total state education budget.

Let me put this into perspective with a football analogy about my own Clemson Tigers. This year, the total points scored by both teams in our game against Miami were 58. Similarly, there were 54 total points scored in our game against Oklahoma. In the aggregate, these games look comparable, and on average, across both games and all teams, the per-team score was 28 points. But those summaries don’t help you understand what happened in each game. Clemson beat Oklahoma 37 to 17, while Miami didn’t score once.Watching the games, you’d know they weren’t the same.And if Clemson instead lost to Oklahoma by the same margin, the aggregate score wouldn’t change. The way we talk about education spending is like reporting football in totals and averages, and so we don’t see the most important aspects of the issue—who scored points, and who won the game?

In our California Lottery report last week, EdBuild showed that, unlike in football, the neighborhoods putting up the points—paying into the lottery—are not the ones that get to win in education funding. When you look at the lottery in terms of aggregate revenue and average per-student dollars, you might call the program “fair,” because the same amount of money is allocated for every student in the state.But it’s actually drastically inequitable, in ways that these broader numbers hide.

Reporting the lottery’s $5 billion in annual revenue obscures the fact that this government program draws a disproportionate share of its revenue from the poorest communities, which are home to the most disadvantaged students.For example, in very low-income West Compton, the community is paying over $11,600 per student into the lottery, while Piedmont, a wealthy school district carved out of the middle of Oakland Unified, is spending just $3 per student on the lottery.

What about thinking of the education dollars collected and distributed by the state in average terms?Each district gets about $164 dollars per student, which seems equal at first glance.But if you don’t recognize the wide disparities in communities’ payments into the system, you ignore how much money is pulled out of low-income neighborhoods to fund this “fair” system.Even after the lottery gives out its education funding, West Compton loses over $11,400 per student.Piedmont, though, gains $161 per pupil from the lottery.

This is unfair on its face.But focusing on the results of the system hides a further injustice. West Compton isn’t just falling far short of parity with Piedmont.It’s doubly shortchanged, because its children need far more resources.Children from low-income communities arrive at school behind their more affluent peers, and the gap widens without significant additional help and support.In essence, we’re asking most economically disadvantaged children to play the same game of football with fewer men on the field. The funding should do more to provide low-income kids with an equal start, and in our schools that means additional resources.

When we talk about school funding in terms of aggregate figures and per-student averages, we miss the systemic inequities of the system. If EdBuild told the lottery story in terms of the average amount per student, the reader would hear only that every student in the state of California getting an equal share of lottery proceeds, and the problem would be invisible. But when we show that low-income communities are paying into the system at a rate that is four times higher than upper-income areas and have nothing to show for it, we begin to shift the dialogue from what’s equal to what’s just. In other words, we begin to describe who is winning and who is losing.And whether it’s the California lottery or state and national education funding, that’s the kind of conversation we need to have.