The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE) recently released some troubling analyses on inequities in per-pupil funding between high- and low-poverty schools in Boston and throughout the state. These results are based on new reporting required under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that reflects real budget and spending for each individual school, a departure from the use of misleading district-wide averages used by most states and local education agencies prior to ESSA. Massachusetts is one of the first states to report such data out under these new ESSA requirements.
As part of our national research into this new ESSA-required data, we have been conducting similar analyses and can confirm MBAE’s findings. We also uncovered even larger inequities between schools with high and low concentrations of non-white students. This is likely not an aberration – we expect a national trend in school funding inequities as states and districts begin to report school level expenditures.
To bring this disparity to life, we focused on Massachusetts’ capital city. In Boston Public Schools (BPS), schools with the highest concentrations of students of color receive an average of $1,033 less per student than schools with the lowest concentrations of students of color. Within this trend, we also find wide variations in funding, suggesting the absence of a comprehensive strategy to provide students of color with equitable levels of funding.
School funding inequities between districts is a perennial problem in education policy. Report after report has reached the same conclusion: those students who most need the resources necessary for a high-quality education attend schools in districts that receive significantly less in per-pupil funding then do their more advantaged peers.
What’s less known and less discussed is that there are also within-district inequities that follow along the same lines of—and exacerbate—those between districts. In fact, a 2012 study by the Center for American Progress concluded that: “approximately 40 percent of variation in per-pupil spending occurs within school districts.”
Nationally, two key reasons for within-district inequities are that, in most districts, teachers with more seniority: 1) Are paid more than less experienced teachers; and, 2) Get preferential choice aka “bumping” rights in where they teach. This, in turn, means a greater concentration of more senior and higher-paid teachers at schools with less challenging student populations (i.e., those with low concentrations of students of color and those from low-income families) and, conversely, a higher concentration of less experienced and therefore less well-paid teachers at schools with high concentrations of low-income and minority students.
Using data from the BPS 2019-2020 school year budget,[i] we find:
In terms of total per pupil spending, the 25% of BPS schools with the highest concentration of students of color (91-99%) will receive an average of $1,033 less per student than the 25% of schools with the lowest percentage of students of color (20%-66%). That equates to a difference of $18,594 per class of 18 students.[ii]
Looking just at spending on teachers and paraprofessionals[iii] we found that:
The 25% of BPS with the highest concentration of students of color (91%+) spend an average of $270 less per pupil on teacher and paraprofessionals than the 25% of schools with the lowest concentrations of students of color (20-66%), or $4,860 per class of 18 students. This suggests that BPS reflects nationwide trends of inequitable distribution of teachers, with students of color exposed to less experienced teachers than their white peers across the district.
Using data from the Massachusetts state reporting system[iv], we find similar trends to the 2019-20 budget. In 2018:
Schools with higher concentrations of students of color spent slightly less per student than schools with lower concentrations of students of color. The 25% of schools with the highest percentages of students of color spent an average of $241 less per pupil than the 25% of schools with the lowest concentrations of students of color, or $4,338 per class of 18.
Beyond the inequity trends, it seems like because there are so many different funding streams that determine each school’s per-pupil funding total, there are big winners and big losers that don’t cohere in any logical, policy-driven way, as the scatterplot below shows. We see no good reason why 15% of schools with 75% or more non-white students get per-pupil funding of less than $20,000 per student, while so many other schools receive per-pupil funding of $25,000 – $30,000.
Winners in this system share few characteristics. Schools with over $30,000 in per pupil funding have between 40% and 95% students of color, 45% to 92% economically disadvantaged students, comprise all grade levels, include both specialized/alternative schools and traditional neighborhood schools, and are in neighborhoods across the city. And there is a similar range of characteristics among schools that receive fewer than $20,000 per student.
Ultimately, current funding structures—which in includes policy-driven allocations related to enrollments and teacher collective bargaining agreements as well as more random allocations such as supplies or technologies expenses—works to undermine policies designed to provide more resources for students that need them, leaving students of color with fewer resources than their white peers.
[i]Analyses use financial data from the BPS 2019-20 budget and enrollment data from Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. We omitted schools that BPS noted use a different funding formula and school that were not present in both datasets. We looked at both the per pupil amount just from the weighted student formula and the total per pupil allocations, including support and central administration allocations.
[ii]The average class size in Boston is 18 students. See: https://www.bostonpublicschools.org/cms/lib/MA01906464/Centricity/Domain/187/BPS%20at%20a%20Glance%202017-2018.pdf
[iii]Spending figures reported by BPS are projections for the 2019-20 school year, and therefore totals match school budget allocations. Actual spending may ultimately differ from estimates.
[iv]In compliance with ESSA, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education publishes total per pupil spending in each school in the state as a part of school report cards. However, not data on how this money is spent is available.