Closing America's Education Funding Gaps - First-of-Its-Kind Report from The Century Foundation

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Closing America's Education Funding Gaps - First-of-Its-Kind Report from The Century Foundation 

America is in the midst of a profound political reckoning. Against the backdrop of an unprecedented public health crisis and steadily rising death toll, a historically deep economic recession, and widespread protests against police brutality and racial injustice, people across the country are awakening and grappling anew with longstanding issues of inequality, opportunity, and justice—and confronting the hard truths of the American experience for people of color.

One of the starkest examples of this inequality, as well as a leading cause of it, is our nation’s highly unequal and highly segregated K–12 public education system. By underinvesting in our public schools, we rob millions of American children—particularly Black, brown, and low-income children—of the opportunity to succeed. Inequality, in effect, begins at birth.

While we have known for decades that the United States is failing in its commitment to provide equal educational opportunity, there is far less consensus and understanding of how to reverse these trends. Now, for the first time ever, The Century Foundation (TCF) has calculated the level of investment needed to lift up every student in the country that is currently falling behind. In other words, in this report we estimate what it would cost to provide each child in America—no matter their background—with the opportunity to succeed in school.

Inequality begins in childhood: The United States is underfunding our public schools by nearly $150 billion annually, robbing millions of children—predominantly minority and low-income children—of the opportunity to succeed.

We can begin to restore the promise of public education by simply investing more in our students and in our schools. A wide-ranging and rigorous body of research makes it clear: spending matters in education. More specifically, greater investments in schools translate to improved student outcomes, and these outcomes are more pronounced and significant for low-income and minority students.

Across a range of metrics, U.S. students score lower than students in other developed nations, and these outcomes vary significantly along racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines. At the same time, state- and district-level data show wide variation in educational spending across the country. Some school districts and states spend vastly more per pupil, and pay educators much higher wages, than others. Not surprisingly, variation in education spending largely overlaps with variation in student outcomes. In general, where states invest more in public schools, students tend to achieve higher scores and perform better.

To calculate exactly “how much” more spending is needed, TCF partnered with the nation’s leading school finance expert, Bruce D. Baker, Ed.D., of Rutgers University Graduate School of Education, to develop a first-of-its-kind national cost model study. Our model estimates what it would cost for students to achieve national average outcomes on reading and math assessments by 2021 for every school district in the country, more than 13,000 in total.

For the majority of school districts in the country (7,224 in total, serving almost two-thirds of public school students, or more than 30 million children in total), bringing students up to the nation’s current average outcomes requires greater public investment, enough to fill what we call a “funding gap.” The remaining districts currently provide funding at or above what our model estimates is needed to achieve average outcomes, and thus have no funding gap.1

We have visualized the findings of the model in a nationwide map, available above. The interactive map allows users to identify what, if any, funding gap exists for a particular school district or state. It includes estimates for both aggregate and per-pupil funding gaps in each school district and state, which serve to tell us the following:

  • Aggregate funding gaps provide the overall scope of the investment needed in each jurisdiction. In districts and states with larger populations of students, these aggregate gaps will be larger.
  • Per-pupil funding gaps, on the other hand, allow comparisons across districts and states, irrespective of population size.

In addition, we include two different estimates for what it would cost to close the gap:

  • The first represents the cost to states and districts if they acted swiftly to close the gap within one year.
  • The second represents the costs to localities if they scale up and phase in spending over five years to close the gap (the map below)...
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