School Funding Essay

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Funding of U.S. public schools has long been a focus of contention, primarily because children living in high poverty and high-minority neighborhoods so often attend schools that have relatively few resources. Decades of litigation document a clash between commitments to “local control” of schools, on one hand, and the provision of equal educational opportunity, regardless of where one lives, on the other. This entry examines sources of funding for U.S. public schools, disparities in resources, and legal challenges to the continuing situation.

Sources Of Funding

Unlike most industrialized nations, the United States relies heavily on local property taxes to fund its public schools. These revenues, which account for about 45 percent of total school funding, create significant disparities among school districts because local property values vary so much. Even when property-poor communities tax themselves at higher rates than property rich communities, as is often the case, they cannot raise comparable revenues because property values are so much lower.

State revenues are another significant source of funding for public schools. Because budget priorities and tax policies differ from state to state, the size of the state share varies considerably, but on average, it is about 47 percent of the total. Some states allocate funds in such a way as to reduce the disparities created by local property tax revenues, but many do not. A report by The Education Trust, a research and advocacy organization, found that in the six years it has been tracking the funding gap, the disparity between highland low-poverty districts has remained unchanged. In 2003, in the nation as a whole, low-poverty school districts received approximately $900 more in state and local funds than high-poverty districts. (High-poverty districts were defined as the 25 percent of districts with the highest levels of poverty, and low-poverty districts as the 25 percent with the lowest levels.)

The third source of funding for public schools, federal revenues, comprises only about 8 percent of the total. These revenues come primarily through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (reauthorized most recently as the No Child Left Behind Act). Although Title I funds often are used to bring spending in schools in poor neighborhoods up to par with spending in other neighborhoods, some funding is diverted to schools in wealthier neighborhoods.

Widespread Disparitie

How large are disparities in school funding? In its 2006 Quality Counts report, Education Week reported that in 2003, average per-pupil spending (adjusted for regional cost differences) ranged from a high of $11,031 in Washington, D.C., to a low of $5,087 in Utah. Gaps among districts within states and among schools within districts exacerbate the state-to-state differences.

Funding disparities between large, predominantly minority city districts and nearby predominantly White suburban districts are particularly significant. Illinois Board of Education data for 2003, for example, show per-pupil spending of $8,482 in Chicago (87 percent minority), but $17,291 in nearby suburban Highland Park (10 percent minority). Similar patterns can be found in the Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee, Boston, and New York City areas.

Recent research has uncovered “hidden” disparities among schools within a single district resulting from the way teacher salaries are factored into district budgets. If one or more schools in a district have a disproportionate share of the highest paid teachers, this does not necessarily show up in districtwide budget reports. The highest paid teachers commonly are found in schools with the lowest poverty levels.

A 2006 report by the 21st Century School Fund documents additional inequities in spending on school construction and renovation. Despite record-level spending between 1995 and 2004, the most disadvantaged students received only about half as much per pupil as their wealthier counterparts. Furthermore, in the poorer schools, most of the funding went toward basic safety provisions (roof repairs or asbestos removal, for example) rather than educational enhancements such as science labs and computer rooms, as was the case in the wealthier districts.

Legal Challenges

Although the question of whether “money really matters” in schooling continues to arise in school-funding lawsuits, the ongoing litigation itself attests to broad agreement that much is at stake. Significant disparities in funding mean that students in property-rich districts typically attend classes in well-maintained buildings, with well-qualified and adequately compensated teachers and abundant opportunities to participate in art, music, and sports programs. Students in property poor districts, however, often face years of schooling in buildings in disrepair, with teachers lacking credentials (or even full-time positions), outdated textbooks that must be shared, and few extracurricular activities.

As of 2006, school funding lawsuits had been brought in forty-five states, and plaintiffs had prevailed in almost two thirds of the cases. A landmark case, San Antonio v. Rodriguez, was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973. This case focused on large disparities in funding among property-rich and property-poor school districts in Texas. The Supreme Court acknowledged the disparities but found no constitutional violation and no justification for altering the school funding system in a way that might lessen “local control.” This decision closed the door to appeals to the U.S. Constitution but did not stop lawsuits over school funding. Almost every state has language in its constitution that obligates it to provide some quality of public schooling statewide. Since Rodriguez, plaintiffs generally have asked courts to interpret provisions in state constitutions in ways that require states to provide funding that is more equitable, more adequate, or both.

“Adequacy” arguments constitute the most recent legal strategy in the ongoing battles over school funding. Adequacy sometimes has been defined as the level of funding required to provide all students with an opportunity to learn what they need to know to pass high-stakes tests—that is, tests used to determine promotion or graduation. However, it also has been defined as a baseline level of funding. Recognizing that “equal” funding can nevertheless be insufficient, many scholars and lawyers regard the pursuit of “adequate” funding as a more desirable objective than “equity” or “equality.” Others, however, see the pursuit of adequacy as tacit acceptance of a system of schooling that is both separate, in the sense of racially segregated to a significant extent, and unequal, in the sense of unfairly funded. Funding that allows for an adequate education for some children, but for a far more expensive (and much better) education for others, undercuts the ideal of equal educational opportunity.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act, reauthorized in 2007, promises to intensify these arguments in the years ahead. Questions will continue to be raised, in and out of courts, about how a law that attempts to hold all students and schools to the same high academic standards can be reconciled with structures of funding that year after year underwrite a top-quality education for some students (disproportionately White students in middle-class and wealthy communities) and a barebones minimum for others (disproportionately students of color in poor communities).


  1. Books, S., & McAninch, A. R. (2006). Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities: A 15-year reconsideration: A special issue of Educational Studies. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  2. Education Trust. (2005). The funding gap 2005. Retrieved from
  3. Kozol, J. (1991). Savage inequalities: Children in America’s schools. New York: Crown.
  4. Kozol, J. (2005). The shame of the nation: The restoration of apartheid schooling in America. New York: Crown.
  5. Schrag, P. (2005). Final test: The battle for adequacy in America’s schools. New York: New Press.
  6. ACCESS:

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