School district lines have become engines of inequity in many states. Not only can they be used to keep children out of a neighborhood's schools, they can also keep a district's wealth in. But with many districts facing severe budget cuts because of the coronavirus pandemic, a new report proposes a radical solution:
Leave the lines, but spread the wealth.
The report, titled Clean Slate, comes from EdBuild, a nonprofit that advocates for equitable school funding. It's a moonshot pitch to many district and state leaders that recommends distributing local property tax revenue more broadly — at the county or even state level. According to EdBuild, only 13 states currently do this.
After a nationwide analysis of school funding data, the report found, "the bigger the school district taxing jurisdiction, the more equity was being created," says Rebecca Sibilia, EdBuild's founder and CEO.
Under this reimagining of America's school funding system, EdBuild found, more than 2 out of 3 K-12 students (69%) — and 76% of low-income students — would receive equal or greater school funding than they do now, an average increase of nearly $1,000 per student.
Sibilia admits some communities may see this idea as a threat to their local control of schools, but funding should not be confused with governance, she says.
"I hope this report will take the first step toward really challenging this question of whether or not being able to run your own schools means being able to keep all of the money that you happen to have," Sibilia says.
To understand Sibilia's proposed solution, here's a quick primer on the system as it is: On average, America's schools receive nearly half of their funding from local sources, mostly property taxes. But those local dollars usually don't cross school district lines. So if one community's property wealth far surpasses that of its neighbors across the road, the inequity will show up not just in the size of the homes or the number of businesses, but in classroom spending, too.
According to EdBuild, in counties with more than one school district, the average difference between the highest- and lowest-wealth district is more than $6,000 per student. And these spending inequities within a given county are most common in northern states.
The report found that school districts in the South — in a triangle tipped by Maryland, Florida and Louisiana — distribute local funding more equitably than their neighbors to the north for one big reason: Districts in the South are larger, and tend to follow county lines.
Georgia, for example, has 159 counties, but the vast majority (139) have just one school district in them, Sibilia says. New York, on the other hand, has just 62 counties, but 57 contain two or more districts. The average difference in local revenue per student, between the highest and lowest-wealth districts in the same Georgia county is $186. In New York, that difference is $22,006 per student.
In addition to New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut and California all rank among the worst states in the nation for cross-border equity.
Sibilia says this idea that broader, county- or state-based school district spending allows for more equitable local funding, has come up again and again in previous EdBuild reports. "Last year we put out a report that highlighted the 969 worst school districts, in terms of both racial and funding gaps. Only 66 of those school district borders, the worst in the country, exist in states that draw school district funding lines along counties."
EdBuild's report comes as districts across the country face severe budget cuts as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. State revenues, driven largely by income and sales taxes, make up the other half of schools' funding, after local sources, and with revenues crashing states have already warned schools to prepare for steep cuts. That's why, Sibilia says, it's more important than ever for state lawmakers to rethink how communities collect and share their local property tax revenue.
"I would find it inexplicable that [state lawmakers] don't do that at the same time that they take the massive cuts that we know are coming," Sibilia says. "If they do the dual injustice of taking the cuts from the state funds and the injustice of not taking action to spread out local wealth at the same time, then we're going to just continue to repeat the same problems that have always existed in school funding."
The chief obstacle to Sibilia's fix is the fact that, while nearly 70% of students would benefit, that leaves almost a third of students who would not. Those students would see declines in local school funding, making this recommendation political kryptonite in many communities. Even in places that may be receptive, change likely would not happen fast enough to help schools through the current, pandemic-driven budget crisis.
"This is an idea that's ... unbelievably difficult and is not something that would help in the fall," says Michael Griffith, who studies school funding at the Learning Policy Institute. Communities who would stand to lose money would need to be convinced that the change is still in their best interest, he says. "If this were easy to do, it would have been done."
Griffith points to Michigan as an example of just how hard change can be. In 1994, the state moved from a traditional, local property tax school funding system to a statewide tax. But to do so, lawmakers took dramatic steps.
"To get everybody on board, they said, 'Most of you will get a property tax cut. We'll make up that property tax cut with sales and cigarette taxes and some other things. And then you're going to share that property tax revenue with others in the state.'"
That sweeping property tax cut, says Griffith, helped people to buy in. But it also made Michigan's schools more dependent on sales tax revenue, which is more volatile than property taxes in an economic downturn.
While school funding experts may not share Sibilia's optimism for how quickly states might be willing to reimagine their school funding systems, they do agree that it's an important conversation to have.
"It would benefit all of us if we had more equitably funded schools," says Michael Leachman at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "I hope that we're moving to a place where we recognize that dealing with these kinds of underlying structural questions really helps all of us."
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
School district borders have become engines of inequity in many places. They can be drawn to keep children out of a neighborhood's schools. They can also be drawn to keep a district's wealth in. Now, with many districts facing budget cuts because of the pandemic, one group is proposing a radical change to the way America funds its schools. NPR education correspondent Cory Turner is here to walk us through it.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.
KELLY: Who is this group, and what are they proposing?
TURNER: Yeah. So they're called EdBuild, and they advocate for more equitable school funding. And they've just released a new report. They call it Clean Slate. And in it, EdBuild really takes a swing at a key pillar of America's school funding system, and that is the fact that our schools get nearly half of their money from local sources. And as we all know, that's usually in the form of property taxes, which is one reason, though, we see big funding differences between school districts even when those districts are in the same county.
KELLY: OK. So that is the landscape. What sort of change is EdBuild proposing?
TURNER: Well, so those funding differences I just mentioned, they're often larger - at least in local funding - in northern states. And that's because districts there tend to be smaller and often concentrate poverty or affluence. But in the South, school district lines tend to follow county lines. And that means that districts are more likely to encompass both pockets of poverty and affluence. So this local spending gets spread out more equitably. Now, obviously, many of these southern states still have incredibly flawed systems because of funding choices that are made at the state level. But what EdBuild is arguing here is that distributing local property taxes at the county level, or even more broadly at the state level, would be a big step in the right direction for the 37 states that don't currently do it.
KELLY: Intriguing, and I would also assume controversial in richer communities where people pay a lot in tax, and they expect that money to stay in their school districts.
TURNER: Yeah, absolutely. I think it's fair to say this idea would be political kryptonite in lots of places. But, you know, EdBuild's argument is that it would help a lot more kids than it would hurt. They did a huge analysis of the data, and they found that if states that don't do this were to switch to a county or state-based model for sharing this local tax revenue, roughly 2 out of 3 students would receive equal or greater school funding than they do now - 2 out of 3. And that would be with an average revenue increase of nearly $1,000 per student. Now, obviously, Mary Louise, that's still a third of kids who would see decreased funding, and changing the system would require everybody to buy in.
KELLY: Hmm. I mean, I wonder if it is more or less feasible in this particular moment where so many districts are facing just huge budget cuts because of the pandemic. Does that make it more possible that states would consider a change like this?
TURNER: You know, I think it's a good moment to start talking about it. I think the short answer to whether or not states would actually do it now is probably not because it would be so incredibly hard to do. You know, state budgets are in such a crunch right now, likely the only realistic way to help schools is with help from the federal government. Still, you know, I spoke with several school funding experts who told me we really have to have a broader school funding conversation sometime. The system is deeply flawed enough, and it's abundantly clear every time we go through a crisis like this.
KELLY: NPR's Cory Turner reporting.
TURNER: You're welcome.
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