In the 1920s, the NAACP conducted a series of studies showing that segregated Black schools in Georgia and Mississippi received just one-eighth and one-fifth, respectively, of what segregated White schools in the same states received. The period of school integration following Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and other successes of the civil rights movement brought welcome changes but did not come close to ensuring that schools were appropriately funded. Finally, beginning in the 1970s, state supreme courts and legislatures began to force changes to school funding. Funding continued to increase, but it also began to be allocated differently. These reforms eventually eliminated the gaps in school funding for more and less affluent students.
In a new installment of Fordham’s Think Again series, I show that the era of “savage inequalities” in school funding has been over for years, presenting equity advocates and school reformers with new challenges.
State-level school finance reforms and, to a lesser extent, increases in federal funding for schools have worked: America’s shamefully persistent inequities in school funding are finally a thing of the past. School funding is now generally progressive, meaning that students from poor families generally attend better-funded schools than students from wealthier families in the same state.
A number of studies cited in the policy brief make clear that the era of “savage inequalities” has been over since long before the Covid-19 pandemic:
- A 2018 study by a team of Berkeley economists found yawning district-level funding gaps in 1990, but by the mid-2000s, these gaps had completely disappeared.
- A 2017 study by the Urban Institute used a series of stunning data visualizations to show that progressively allocated state and federal funding now outweighs the regressive effect of local funding source.
- A 2017 Brookings Institution study shows that by the mid-1990s, funding gaps were largely closed.
- A 2022 Urban Institute study says that “1 percent more funding is allocated to students from households in poverty nationwide than toward students from households not in poverty.”
- A 2022 study by researchers at the Universities of Pennsylvania and Delaware shows that, among schools in the same state, it is actually much more common for those with less affluent students to spend more than other schools—on average $529 more per student per year.
- A 2023 working paper by researchers at Princeton and the University of Alabama gives additional data showing why school-level funding is progressive: State and federal money is targeted at schools serving students in poverty and those with special needs, including those learning English.
The equalization of school funding in the United States is a major achievement, however belated. It is also not the end of the road for school-funding reform. Policymakers now face a new set of questions.
For example, many classroom resources, such as high-quality teachers, cost more to supply in high-poverty schools. At the same time, higher-poverty schools tend to have more students who are English learners and special education students. The combination of more expensive resources and student populations who need more special programs implies that, even when dollars are equalized, other types of resource inequalities will persist. Although education policies that make schools more efficient are the bread and butter of education reform, funding schools so that they can do better at equalizing those classroom resources would also help provide real equality of opportunity in America’s schools, even when it requires even greater funding progressivity.
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt of the most recent edition of the Fordham Institute’s Think Again series of policy briefs, “Think Again: Is education funding in America still unequal?” written by Fordham National Research Director Adam Tyner.