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School Finance

  • Federal Educational Investments Are Essential

    Written on April 22, 2019

    Our guest author today is Stan Litow, a professor of Public Policy at both Duke and Columbia University. He is a former deputy chancellor of schools in New York City, former president of the IBM Foundation, a trustee of the State University of New York, and a member of the Albert Shanker Institute’s board of directors. His book, The Challenge for Business and Society: From Risk to Reward, was published last year.

    The Trump Administration’s recent education budget proposal got a lot of attention for trying to eliminate all federal support for the Special Olympics. In response to bipartisan opposition to this foolish proposal, the cut was restored. This is good news, but the bigger story of the Administration’s proposed cuts to educational programs—and their impact on the most critical issues facing the nation—got lost in what appeared to be a positive result. The cut to the Special Olympics was misguided, but hardly unique. The overall cuts represent 12 percent of the education budget, or approximately $7 billion.

    Among the most misguided cuts are those that would negatively affect college affordability, including reductions in student aid programs such as College Work Study, as well reduced funding for teacher professional development. As with the Special Olympics, there are advocates on both sides of the aisle who are likely to fight hard to reverse these cuts, but reversing the cuts would only represent a modest victory. They would not solve the underlying problems exemplified by the cuts.

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  • Dispatches From The Nexus Of Boring And Important

    Written on April 3, 2019

    School finance is one of those education policy topics located at the extreme ends of the important continuum as well as the boring continuum. On the one hand, school funding is relevant to virtually all major education policy decisions at the state-, district-, and school levels - at least in the background, but usually in the foreground. And the finance research literature is increasingly clear that there is a causal relationship between increased and/or progressive funding and better student outcomes (e.g., Jackson 2018Baker 2016).

    And yet, on the other hand, school finance is probably among the least sexy topics in our public education discourse, in part because the money behind policies is never as exciting as the policies themselves, but also because finance research is complicated and esoteric, and reading the research sometimes feels like reading audited financial statements.

    Yesterday, the Shanker Institute, in collaboration with Bruce Baker and Mark Weber from Rutgers, released a new report and public dataset on school finance in the U.S. 

    It's still not sexy. Just to make sure, we called it the School Finance Indicators Database.

    But we did try to make it more accessible and useful to the general public than the typical finance fare. The report presents key findings from the database, specifically state-by-state results on three “core” indicators: fiscal effort, adequacy, and progressivity. We feel that these three indicators provide a pretty good summary of states’ school finance systems. Rather than going through the report’s findings, here are a few things to keep in mind when reading it.

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  • A Myth Grows In The Garden State

    Written on July 15, 2016

    New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s recently announced a new "fairness funding" plan to provide every school district in his state roughly the same amount of per-pupil state funding. This would represent a huge change from the current system, in which more state funds are allocated to the districts that serve a larger proportion of economically disadvantaged students. Thus, the Christie proposal would result in an increase in state funding for middle class and affluent districts, and a substantial decrease in money for poorer districts. According to the Governor, the change would reduce the property tax burden on many districts by replacing some of their revenue with state money.

    This is a very bad idea. For one thing, NJ state funding of education is already about 7-8 percent lower than it was in 2008 (Leachman et al. 2015). And this plan would, most likely, cut revenue in the state’s poorest districts by dramatic amounts, absent an implausible increase in property tax rates. It is perfectly reasonable to have a discussion about how education money is spent and allocated, and/or about tax structure. But it is difficult to grasp how serious people could actually conceive of this particular idea. And it’s actually a perfect example of how dangerous it is when huge complicated bodies of empirical evidence are boiled down to talking points (and this happens on all “sides” of the education debate).

    Pu simply, Governor Christie believes that “money doesn’t matter” in education. He and his advisors have been told that how much you spend on schools has little real impact on results. This is also a talking point that, in many respects, coincides with an ideological framework of skepticism toward government and government spending, which Christie shares.

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  • New Research Report: Are U.S. Schools Inefficient?

    Written on June 7, 2016

    At one point or another we’ve all heard some version of the following talking points: 1) “Spending on U.S. education has doubled or triped over the past few decades, but performance has remained basically flat; or 2) “The U.S. spends more on education than virtually any other nation and yet still gets worse results.” If you pay attention, you will hear one or both of these statements frequently, coming from everyone from corporate CEOs to presidential candidates.

    The purpose of both of these statements is to argue that U.S. education is inefficient - that is, gets very little bang for the buck – and that spending more money will not help.

    Now, granted, these sorts of pseudo-empirical talking points almost always omit important nuances yet, in some cases, they can still provide important information. But, putting aside the actual relative efficiency of U.S. schools, these particular statements about U.S. education spending and performance are so rife with oversimplification that they fail to provide much if any useful insight into U.S. educational efficiency or policy that affects it. Our new report, written by Rutgers University Professor Bruce D. Baker and Rutgers Ph.D. student Mark Weber, explains why and how this is the case. Baker and Weber’s approach is first to discuss why the typical presentations of spending and outcome data, particularly those comparing nations, are wholly unsuitable for the purpose of evaluating U.S. educational efficiency vis-à-vis that of other nations. They then go on to present a more refined analysis of the data by adjusting for student characteristics, inputs such as class size, and other factors. Their conclusions will most likely be unsatisfying for all “sides” of the education debate.

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  • New Report: Does Money Matter in Education? Second Edition

    Written on January 20, 2016

    In 2012, we released a report entitled “Does Money Matter in Education?,” written by Rutgers Professor Bruce Baker. The report presented a thorough, balanced review of the rather sizable body of research on the relationship between K-12 education spending and outcomes. The motivation for this report was to address the highly contentious yet often painfully oversimplified tribal arguments regarding the impact of education spending and finance reforms, as well as provide an evidence-based guide for policymakers during a time of severe budgetary hardship. It remains our most viewed resource ever, by far.

    Now, almost four years later, education spending in most states and localities is still in trouble. For example, state funding of education is lower in 2016 than it was in 2008 (prior to the recession) in 31 states (Leachman et al. 2016). Moreover, during this time, there has been a continuing effort to convince the public that how much we spend on schools doesn’t matter for outcomes, and that these spending cuts will do no harm.

    As is almost always the case, the evidence on spending in education is far more nuanced and complex than our debates about it (on both “sides” of the issue). And this evidence has been building for decades, with significant advances since the release of our first “Does Money Matter?” report. For this reason, we have today released the second edition, updated by the author. The report is available here.

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  • Recent Trends In The Sources Of Public Education Revenue

    Written on March 24, 2015

    Every year, the U.S. Census Bureau issues a report on the overall state of public education finances in the U.S. There is usually a roughly 2-3 year lag on the data – for example, the latest report applies to the 2011-12 fiscal year – but the report and accompanying data are a good way to keep an eye on the general education finance situation both in individual states as well as nationwide, particularly among those of us who are somewhat casual followers (though it bears keeping in mind that these data do not include many charter schools).

    One of the more interesting trends in recent years is the breakdown of total revenue by source. As most people know, U.S. public school systems are funded by a combination of federal, state and local revenue. Today, although states vary considerably in the configuration of these three sources, on the whole, most funding comes from state and local revenue, with a smaller but still significant contribution from federal government sources (total revenue in 2011-12 was about $595 billion).

    But there has been some volatility in these relative contributions over the past few years (at least the past few years for which data are available). The graph below presents the percent of total elementary/secondary education revenue from federal, state and local sources between 1989-90 and 2011-12.

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  • Unreliable Sources: Education Revenue During The Recession

    Written on June 6, 2013

    For the better part of the past century, U.S. public education revenue has come predominantly from state and local sources, with the federal government contributing only a relatively small share. For most of this time, local revenue (primarily property taxes) comprised the largest proportion, but this began to shift gradually during the 1970s, to the point where state funds constituted a slightly larger share of overall revenue.

    As you can see in the simple graph below, which uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau, this situation persisted throughout the 1990s and most of the 2000s. During this period, states provided roughly 50 percent of total revenue, localities about 45 percent, and the federal government approximately 5-8 percent. Needless to say, these overall proportions varied quite a bit by state. Vermont represents one of the most extreme examples, where, as a result of a 1997 State Supreme Court decision, education funding comes almost entirely from the state. Conversely, since Hawaii’s education system consists of a single statewide district, revenue on paper is dominated by state sources (though, in Hawaii's case, you might view the state and local levels as the same).

    That said, the period of 2008 to 2010 was a time of pretty sharp volatility in the overall proportions contributed by each level of government.

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  • The Relatively Unexplored Frontier Of Charter School Finance

    Written on May 3, 2012

    Do charter schools do more – get better results - with less? If you ask this question, you’ll probably get very strong answers, ranging from the affirmative to the negative, often depending on the person’s overall view of charter schools. The reality, however, is that we really don’t know.

    Actually, despite uninformed coverage of insufficient evidence, researchers don’t even have a good handle on how much charter schools spend, to say nothing of whether how and how much they spend leads to better outcomes. Reporting of charter financial data is incomplete, imprecise and inconsistent. It is difficult to disentangle the financial relationships between charter management organizations (CMOs) and the schools they run, as well as that between charter schools and their "host" districts.

    A new report published by the National Education Policy Center, with support from the Shanker Institute and the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, examines spending between 2008 and 2010 among charter schools run by major CMOs in three states – New York, Texas and Ohio. The results suggest that relative charter spending in these states, like test-based charter performance overall, varies widely. In addition, perhaps more importantly, the findings make it clear that there remain significant barriers to accurate spending comparisons between charter and regular public schools, which severely hinder rigorous efforts to examine the cost-effectiveness of these schools.

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  • New Report: Does Money Matter?

    Written on January 6, 2012

    Over the past few years, due to massive budget deficits, governors, legislators and other elected officials are having to slash education spending. As a result, incredibly, there are at least 30 states in which state funding for 2011 is actually lower than in 2008. In some cases, including California, the amounts are over 20 percent lower.

    Only the tiniest slice of Americans believe that we should spend less on education, while a large majority actually supports increased funding. At the same time, however, there’s a concerted effort among some advocates, elected officials and others to convince the public that spending more money on education will not improve outcomes, while huge cuts need not do any harm.

    Often, their evidence comes down to some form of the following graph:

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  • In Census Finance Data, Most Charters Are Not Quite Public Schools

    Written on June 6, 2011

    Last month, the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual public K-12 school finance report (and accompanying datasets). The data, which are for FY 2009 (there’s always a lag in finance data), show that spending increased roughly two percent from the previous year. This represents much slower growth than usual.

    These data are a valuable resource that has rightfully gotten a lot of attention. But there’s a serious problem within them, which, while slightly technical, hasn’t received any attention at all: The vast majority of public charter schools are not included in the data.

    To gather its data, the Census Bureau relies on reporting from “government entities." Some charter schools fit this description neatly, such as those operated by governments or government-affiliated bodies, including states, districts, counties, and public universities. But most charter schools are operated by private organizations (mostly non-profits), and finance figures for these schools are not included in the report (the Census classifies them as "private charter schools").

    What does this mean? Well, for one thing, it means that the overall spending figures (total dollar amounts) are a bit understated. Charters only account for a relatively small proportion of all public school enrollments (around 5-6 percent); still, given the huge amounts of money we’re dealing with here (the U.S. spends roughly $600 billion a year), we’re talking about quite a bit in absolute terms. Perhaps more important is the potential effect on per-pupil spending figures – the way that education financing is usually expressed.

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