The United States is underfunding its K-12 public schools by nearly $150 billion annually, robbing more than 30 million school children of the resources they need to succeed in the classroom, according to a new, first-of-its-kind study released today by The Century Foundation (TCF). School districts with high concentrations of Latinx and Black students are much more likely to be underfunded than majority white districts, and face much wider funding gaps, an average deficit of more than $5,000 per student, the analysis finds.
The study, Closing America’s Education Funding Gaps, is based on a comprehensive national cost model developed by leading school finance expert Bruce Baker. The model estimates the investment needed in every school district in the country—more than 13,000 in total—and in all 50 states to bring students up to national average outcomes. The majority of school districts in the country—7,224 in total, serving almost two-thirds of all public school students—face a “funding gap,” meaning that lifting students up to average outcomes requires greater public investment. Districts with funding gaps are disproportionately made up of low-income and Black and Latinx students, and are predominantly located in the U.S. southwest and southeast. States with the largest funding gaps also tend to be those that saw significant public education cuts following the Great Recession.
TCF has visualized the findings of the cost model in a new nationwide interactive map, which allows users to identify funding gaps, if any, exist for a particular school district or state. The map includes estimates for both aggregate and per-pupil funding gaps, as well as two estimates for what it would cost to close the gap within one year and by using a phased-in, scaled-up approach over five years.
“Never before have we had rigorous, evidenced-based and concrete data showing exactly where and how much money we need to invest in order to give students a chance to succeed,” said Mark Zuckerman, TCF president and former deputy director of President Obama’s Domestic Policy Council. “Our study’s estimates provide policymakers at all levels a detailed roadmap to once and for all remedy our vast inequities in public education funding. The analysis is both a starting point and a floor to lift up all students.”
America’s public education system has long faced significant disparities by race/ethnicity and income, especially following steep education cuts implemented in the aftermath of the Great Recession. As the COVID-19 pandemic constrains state and local budgets, policymakers once again face pressure to make cuts that could widen existing gaps. TCF’s study demonstrates that, even before the pandemic, cuts to public education have a significant cost and, unfortunately, Black, Latinx, and low-income students have paid the highest price.
“Our analysis shows that inequity in public education is directly connected to funding choices made by policymakers,” said Halley Potter, TCF senior fellow and one of the authors of the study. “As protests across the country bring renewed attention and urgency to systemic racism and where we invest our resources, this study can inform better funding choices that address, not exacerbate, existing racial inequalities. We can’t make the same mistakes now that we made following the last recession.”
- Low-income school districts are more than twice as likely to have a funding gap as higher income districts.
- Districts with the highest concentrations of poverty—those in the highest 20 percent of districts by Census poverty rate—are 2.6 times more likely to have a funding gap. The average gap in these districts is more than $6,700 per pupil.
- Districts that have more than 50 percent Black or Latinx enrollment are nearly twice as likely to have a funding gap than districts with minority enrollment less than 50 percent.
- Nationally, districts with over 50 percent Black and/or Latinx students face a funding gap of more than $5,000 per pupil on average.
- Black students are disproportionately concentrated in poorly funded, low-performing districts.
- While only 8 percent of children in well-funded, high-performing districts are Black, over 20 percent of children in poorly funded, low-performing districts are Black.
- 86 percent of children attending districts with majority Black student populations are in districts that have funding gaps.
- Districts with the largest funding gaps have a high concentration of Latinx students. In fact, few districts with very high Latinx shares spend more than enough to achieve average outcomes.
- While only 13 percent of children in well-funded, high-performing districts are Latinx, nearly 40 percent of children in poorly funded, low-performing districts are Latinx.
- 96 percent of children attending districts with majority Latinx student populations are in districts that have funding gaps.
- Among districts of at least 25,000 students (288 districts overall), the ten districts with the largest funding gaps per pupil are all majority Latinx.
- The three districts with the largest gaps—La Joya ($18,398 gap per pupil), Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ($14,104), and Brownsville ($14,008)—are almost entirely Latinx and are all located in Texas.
- States with the largest funding gaps per pupil are concentrated in the southwest and southeast United States.
- Arizona has the largest funding gap per pupil ($7,020), followed by Nevada ($6,693) and California ($6,089).
- Three states—California, Texas, and Florida—have aggregate gaps more than $10 billion. These states collectively enroll more than 14 million students.
- Many of the states with the largest funding gaps saw significant public education cuts following the Great Recession.
- The four states that implemented the largest state-wide cuts to public education following the Great Recession—Oklahoma, New Mexico, Florida, and Arizona—are all among the ten worst states for funding gaps per pupil.