The ins and outs of school finance
Bewildered by budget battles, bonds, parcel taxes and complicated school funding systems? You're not alone.
By Marian Wilde , GreatSchools Staff
America has a proud tradition of providing a free education to its citizens, but the amount of money spent on public education varies widely from state to state, as it does from school district to school district. These differences affect quality, making it hard to provide an equal educational opportunity for all.
How are public schools funded?
You don't need a Ph.D. in school finance to understand our public education funding system, but it does take a little effort.
The state and local role
Historically, public schools in America have been funded largely by local property taxes. Local revenues, however, have not kept up with the needs of the schools and have actually decreased in many states. This has been especially true in those states that have had "taxpayer revolts," such as California, where voters passed Proposition 13 in the late 70s, which led to a dramatic change in the funding structure for public education. To compensate for this change, the states have entered into the picture and backfilled these losses.
"We know what that battle looks like in California," says Mary Perry, deputy director of EdSource, a California resource center with a mission Courtesy of the National Center for Education Statistics Distribution of revenue for public schools: School year 2001-2002 "to clarify complex education issues." According to Perry, "We're now in a situation where the state general fund is volatile and where state lawmakers have a lot of other pulls on that money."
The federal role
Despite all the media attention to federal programs like No Child Left Behind, the federal government does not contribute a large amount to running America's schools. And the federal money that is given to schools often comes with strings attached.
How it all breaks down
On average, schools receive:
- About eight percent of their funding from the federal government
- Almost 50 percent from the state budget
- The rest, about 42 percent, comes from local taxes.
However, keep in mind that no two states have the same funding systems.
Inequity and under-funding
In the past few decades, school financing systems have been scrutinized, revised and adjusted as the nation tries to address problems of inequity. Paying for schools with local property taxes has been one of the main causes of unequal funding.
An affluent community can raise much more money through property taxes than a poor community can, and consequently can attract better qualified teachers, build and maintain more attractive buildings, and pay for more programs and better instructional materials. The poorer communities, precisely the ones that need more resources to educate their children, must make due with smaller pots of money.
State per-pupil expenditures
Perry explains that trying to understand calculations for per-pupil funding in California is not for the faint of heart. "The calculation is very complicated because it's built on historical funding levels. It's ABC Unified gets this amount because 25 years ago they got that amount. And since then there's been a formula calculation and other stuff that's happened and 32 pages of calculations, frankly, that get from what they got before to what they get today. So every single school district has to do a calculation. And they've tried over and over to adjust it and fix it, and every time it seems like it just gets more complicated."
Differences from state to state
Donna Kaufman, a mother of two children, and a transplant from California to New York, has had the opportunity to experience first hand the differences in per-pupil funding. The state of New York spends $13,703 a year per student, whereas California spends only $7,127 a year per student (according to 2004 data from the National Center for Education Statistics).
"There is a big difference between schools in California and schools in Long Island," she says. "I volunteered twice a week in the children's classrooms in California and when I was in there I was teaching children-pulling out the higher students and enriching them and pulling out the slower students and helping them. So I really was involved in teaching and that was the way the volunteering went. I participated in the classroom curriculum. In Long Island, there aren't parent volunteers in the classroom. There are teachers' aides and reading teachers coming in. So they supplement the classroom with professionals. I didn't see that in California."
Class size is generally lower in Long Island as well. "In elementary school it's 17 to 1," she says. "That's not what we experienced in fourth grade in California where it went up to 30-something kids in a class. So the class size is smaller here and the lunch programs are more varied."