The conventional wisdom is that American students from poor families are mostly stuck in sorely underfunded public schools while more affluent families have access to well-resourced ones. For decades, this was largely true. “White flight” from cities to suburbs and secession of wealthy neighborhoods from their local school districts perpetuated socioeconomic and racial segregation, while extensive reliance on property taxes to fund schools guaranteed that schools’ resources would, to some extent, mirror the resources of the people in the district.
Thankfully, new research shows that times have changed. In the past half-century, lawmakers and judges, prompted by voters, civil rights activists, and litigants, have pushed for more equitable funding for schools. From 1971 to 2010, for example, state supreme courts forced school finance reforms in twenty-eight states, and these reforms generally led to more spending for the schools serving the lowest-income students. Federal funding dedicated to schools with students facing poverty has also increased over time.
Using newly available school-level spending data that includes funding from all sources in the 2017–18 school year, a new study by a group of education researchers at the University of Delaware and the University of Pennsylvania shows that these changes have finally eliminated the longstanding resource gaps faced by students from low-income families.
In fact, it’s much more common for schools with poorer students to spend more than other schools in the same state, according to these school-level spending and census-based poverty data. Only in Illinois was spending in schools serving poorer students markedly lower than in the wealthier ones, and that state passed school funding reforms in 2017 that are likely closing its gaps, as well. In New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Connecticut, funding for schools serving more low-income students was very slightly lower, but in the rest of the states, school funding is either equal or even higher for the schools serving more low-income students.
Overall, when comparing schools within the same state, those schools serving more students in poverty outspent other schools by $529 per student per year. Higher per-pupil expenditures also occurred in schools serving more Black students, and expenditure for schools serving White and Hispanic students was about the same.
If this new school-level research is accurate—and indeed it jibes with another recent district-level study by the left-leaning Urban Institute—it means that the era of allocating paltry sums to schools serving our most vulnerable students is fortunately over. Dollars allocated for Covid-19 relief, while temporary, also flow disproportionately to schools serving low-income students, meaning that current spending is even more progressive.
Yet many advocates and experts have not borne witness to the effects of school funding reforms. In 2013, for example, Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond wrote that, “In most states, there is at least a three-to-one ratio between per-pupil spending in the richest and poorest districts.” And an influential 2019 report declared that students in “non-White” districts—those where non-White students were at least 75 percent of the population—were collectively underfunded to the tune of $23 billion a year. It’s now clear that such claims are either wildly out of date or based on cutting the data in weird, misleading ways.
Our schools continue to face numerous challenges—especially during this devastating pandemic—but there is strong evidence that the additional dollars that have helped equalize school funding have made a real difference to students from low-income families. Multiple studies show that the finance reforms responsible for these funding increases have boosted student learning. This could help explain why our lowest-achieving students may be performing better academically than in decades past.
It remains true that students from disadvantaged backgrounds need even more resources—properly targeted on high-yield interventions and supports—to reach their full potential. But before we shift the school funding goalposts, we should take a moment to appreciate those who pushed our education system as far as it’s come in equalizing resources. Over the course of decades, state legislatures passed funding reforms, families petitioned the courts, and advocates fought for more fairly funded schools, even as many analysts and reformers tended to scoff at the idea that funding even mattered. Those who fought to make funding more equal deserve some recognition for this striking progress, however belated.
And for the handful of states that still aren’t ensuring that students from more impoverished communities get decently-funded schools—looking at you, New Hampshire—the fight continues: Poor kids deserve equitably funded schools.
Editor’s note: A version of this article was first published by the New York Daily News.