We Need to Get a Handle on the School Funding Conundrum

America needs to get a handle on its school funding conundrum. To describe our issues with school funding as a conundrum seems a bit far-fetched, but is it really? Let me explain. In American the education reform arena, some pundits cite school funding as a threat to education equity and on a deeper level, the nation itself. They opine about the huge differences in funding that we see in high-poverty schools as opposed to middle class or affluent schools.

In short, they would like to see the school funding formulas that fund schools in a more equitable way. Meaning, they want all schools to receive the same amount of per school funding. And on the face of it, I don’t think that it is a bad idea, but it is not a panacea. Why, because fully funding all schools at an equal rate does not provide a solution to human error and fiscal mismanagement.

Let me give you an example. I once worked in a high poverty school district that was eventually taken over by the state of Mississippi, because of financial mismanagement. Albeit five years after I left. The thing that hurt students the most was not the amount of funding that the school district received, but what administrators did with it. I won’t provide conjecture as to why the school district basically went bankrupt but let’s just say some administrators were asleep at the wheel and some had their hand in the cookie jar.

Here is another example. I once worked at an elementary school in an urban school district where the administrators were honest, but asleep at the wheel. For instance, because this school had a high concentration of Title 1 students (low-income students), it was designated as a Title 1 school, and as a result, received Title 1 funding. Before I get to the meat of this example, I feel it is necessary for me to explain what Title 1 is.

Title 1 is the largest federally funded educational program. Essentially, it provides supplemental funds to school districts who have the largest concentrations of poverty. These funds are meant to close the school funding gap and help these schools meet their educational goals. The federal government uses the number of students who receive free or reduced lunch to determine how much money each school will be allocated. Title 1 funds can be used to improve curriculum, instructional activities, counseling, parental engagement, or to hire teachers and other staff members.

So back to my example. Unaware of all the things that Title one could be used for, or simply overwhelmed by the school year, my principal spent the bulk of her funds on instructional and curriculum materials. Sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it? Well, the problem is, teachers already had more materials than they could use in 3 lifetimes. As a result, these materials were housed in several storage closets in the auditorium and were never user. How do I know this?

As a special education teacher, my job was that of a floater, which meant that most of my day was spent visiting and supporting students that were mainstreamed into regular education classrooms. One day, my principal asked if I would help the janitors with some boxes of instructional materials that had just arrived. I did, and we moved the shipment into closets that where located in the auditorium. I was aghast to find two huge closets, filled with boxes of instructional materials that had never been opened. There had to be over $50,000 in instructional materials.

I never mentioned this to anyone in the building, but I frequently tell the story to colleagues. This money could have been put to good use, in a school that had students that lived in utter poverty. All in all, this was one of the best principals that I have ever seen, but she couldn’t see the fault in her stars.

I told you these stories to make a point; no amount of school funding will close the achievement gap, without people who know how to allocate resources correctly. In the end, the resources will not be deployed in a way that helps the most vulnerable students. There are countries whose per-pupil expenditure is 1/10 of ours, and yet their school systems are considered to be in the top five globally, and we can’t even crack the top ten.

As far as how we can crack this conundrum, I have my thoughts, but that will have to wait until another day.

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