Funding for Students in Poverty Must be A Priority

Fighting over funding

The question of whether states are properly funding the education of low-income students is back in the news. The morning after Labor Day, while many students around the country were filing into their new classrooms for the first time, the United States Department of Education (USED) rang in the school year in a different way: by posting proposed regulations regarding the federal Title I funds that are meant to boost academic achievement for students in high-poverty schools. It has long been the rule that this funding must supplement state and local dollars, not replace them, and the new regulations were about how to check whether a school district is in compliance with the rule: Are high-poverty schools in the district getting at least as much in state and local money as non-high-poverty schools before federal dollars are added? Generally speaking, under the proposal, districts can distribute funding to schools using the method of their choice as long as this standard is met.

USED asked for comments on the rule, and it got them. Pushback came from all corners, including and especially from state governments, who felt that this simple accounting was too prescriptive. Education officials from California to Connecticut objected to the proposal, and the Michigan State Senate went so far as to pass a resolution urging the federal government to “curb” the agency’s authority to enforce these “burdensome regulations.” While the finer points of any regulatory system are worth debating, let’s not lose sight of what officials are protesting here: the expectation that states and districts will make sure that high-poverty schools are funded equally with schools serving more advantaged populations.

The evidence is in: More money matters for students in poverty

Study after study has shown that low-income students benefit from being educated in well-resourced schools in the form of increased academic achievement. And evidence suggests that, given sustained education funding increases over the course of their school careers, students in poverty can see just as much long-term success as their non-poor peers.

In one study of the effects of court-ordered school finance reforms, a funding increase of 25% for poor students over all of grade school would close the gaps in educational attainment and adult earnings between these students and non-poor students. And these gaps were substantial: before the reforms, low-income students were 13 percentage points less likely to graduate high school than non-poor students, and had average household incomes of $20,000 less at age 30.

It’s clear that low-income students face specific challenges in school and beyond, and that increased school funding can help make the difference between lifelong disadvantage and positive outcomes. Equal funding is not enough. In order for school funding to be truly equitable, schools serving students from low-income families should receive the higher level of funding needed to close the outcomes gap.

States can do a lot to ensure funding equity — and many don’t do enough

While the conversation about funding for disadvantaged students often begins with federal funds, it can’t end there. Federal dollars make up just a small portion of education funding overall, and it is states, not the federal government, that bear the legal responsibility for maintaining public schools.

State policy can be instrumental in ensuring that both state and local education dollars are distributed equitably. For state dollars, an education funding formula can be used that allocates more money for individual students in poverty or for high-poverty districts. And for local tax revenues, the state can set parameters to make sure that high-wealth districts can’t radically out-spend low-wealth districts, undoing the equity achieved with the state formula.

Not all states take these measures, though. Strict state limits on local education spending are actually pretty rare. And while many states could stand to increase their allocations for low-income students, there are currently 11 states without a funding formula that provides any extra funding for either individual students in poverty or for high-poverty districts or schools.

Supporting students in poverty must be a priority

When our school systems support students in poverty with extra resources, the evidence shows that it makes a difference — on state tests, national assessments, measures of college readiness, graduation rates, and long-term economic outcomes. This research shows why it’s so critical that the federal government not only provides extra funding for schools serving disadvantaged students, but also makes sure that the funding truly is extra, augmenting state and local dollars instead of replacing them. But it shouldn’t require federal regulation for states to make sure that low-income students have the support they need. The ultimate responsibility for schooling rests with the states. That responsibility includes providing enough funding to effectively educate all students, including students in poverty.