Comparable but Unequal: School Funding Disparities

Posted by Center for American Progress on May 18, 2015

Comparable but Unequal: School Funding Disparities

By Robert Hanna, Max Marchitello, and Catherine Brown March 2015

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court made clear with its Brown v. Board of Education decision that education “must be made available to all on equal terms.”1 Sixty years later, that promise remains unfulfilled. Millions of students—largely low-income students and students of color—continue to attend segregated and economically isolated schools.2  State and district school finance systems perpetuate and compound these inequities by providing less money to students with the greatest need.

Federal law—through Title I, Part A, of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA—attempts to ameliorate these disparities. It requires school districts to provide “comparable” educational services in high-poverty and low-poverty, or non-Title I, schools as a condition of receiving Title I dollars.3

But the devil, as always, is in the details. Under current law, districts can compute comparability using average teacher salaries or teacher-to-student ratios instead of actual expenditures on teacher salaries.4  And because teacher salaries constitute the largest proportion of school budgets and teachers with greater experience earn higher salaries and tend to teach in lower-poverty schools, this compliance method renders it impossible to accurately compare school budgets.

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