Arrington: Put Your Money Where Your Kids Are
The funding structure for U.S. public schools must be changed to provide American children with an equitable education.
The American education system’s dismal underperformance compared with other wealthy and developed nations is well-established. More troubling than the disparity between the U.S. education system and those of other wealthy nations, however, are the vast disparities found between schools in the United States. There is tremendous variation in school quality — including academic and extracurricular offerings, college and career counseling and teaching effectiveness — across the United States. Moreover, the reason why this variation in quality exists is clear: vast discrepancies in funding. The American public school system needs reform — funding should be based on the number of students, not the wealth of their parents and school district.
The median income of the locations of the highest- and lowest-ranked high schools across the country are quite varied. For instance, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology holds the top spot on the U.S. News & World Report’s list. The median income for Alexandria, Virginia, its locale, is $59,419. El Camino High of Oceanside, California, is rated number 5,000; the median income of the county is $34,307. The 10,000th school on the list is Moc-Floyd Valley High School of Orange City, Iowa. The area’s median income is $30,737. This data suggests a striking relationship between income and school quality.
At present, public school funding comes from three primary sources: about 48% comes from state sources, 44% comes from local sources — especially from local property taxes — and the rest comes from the federal government. The heavy reliance on local funding amounts to huge disparities in funding per student, even within states. For instance, in Massachusetts, Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools spent over $30,000 per student within the 2016-2017 school year, while the state as a whole averaged just over $16,000 per student. The difference between states can be even more extreme: In Utah, public schools spend on average $7,500 per student, while in New York, that same figure is more than $23,000. With this in mind, the pattern described above begins to make sense. There are confounding variables such as differing priorities for education across states, yet even when these are accounted for, numerous studies have found a connection between income inequality and school quality, including studies by the American Sociological Association and the American Sociological Review.
What all of this boils down to is that every child’s education is not equal in quality; wealth is a huge predictor of the quality of education a child will receive. It is vital that both the federal and state governments take action. States should equalize funding across districts, giving each district enough funding for teachers, programs and other academic offerings and resources necessary for each and every school. The current system of vastly unequal funding fails to ensure consistent public education; states should create a formula that distributes funding equitably, guaranteeing that every school has a similar amount per student.
At the federal level, Congress should pass legislation requiring equity in funding for public schools, especially because there is a precedent for federal involvement in issues of equality and equity. Secondly, Congress can provide financial incentives for states to prioritize this matter themselves. These actions have been proposed time and time again by large groups, including the Equity and Excellence Commission as well as a commission appointed by Republican president Richard Nixon nearly fifty years ago.
I understand that many residents in communities across the U.S. want funding generated by that community to be used for the people within that community. However, in the interest of creating an education system in which there is equal opportunity to succeed, we must abandon that notion. If we broaden our conceptualization of community to include those living outside our own districts, we could redistribute funding in a way such that every school can adequately support its pupils, so that every student can have a quality education regardless of their zip code.
Talking about policies such as these often feels distant from tangible change, but I am convinced from my own experiences that these measures are absolutely and expeditiously necessary. I attended Siloam Springs High School, ranked nationally as number 5,711 according to U.S. News and World Report, of Benton County, Arkansas, where the median income is $33,141. To my knowledge, I am the first person from my school to attend Dartmouth College, the only person in my graduating class of 300 to attend a top-50 school, let alone an Ivy, and one of only a minority of students who even left the state for higher education.
Coincidentally, I happen to know someone who attended Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the aforementioned number one school on the list. According to my friend, heis one of two students at Dartmouth, one of 40 or 50 who attended an Ivy League and one of 300 to 350 who attended a top 50 school, out of a graduating class of just over 400.
We both attended public high schools, and we both deserved a quality education that would place us on the path to future success. But for people from my school, attending colleges of the caliber of Dartmouth is nothing more than a pipe dream. Students from high schools like mine do not generally go to colleges like Dartmouth — it sometimes feels like a fluke that I managed to somehow do it. For the students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, though, it is the norm due to the quality of education these students receive.
The United States cannot continue to allow economic inequality to play such a large role in the quality of any given student’s education. The funding structure of American public schools must be changed. Every student deserves a top-tier education, and if we want to have any chance of achieving that lofty goal, we must prioritize equity.