Federal Funding as a Solution to Public Education in the United States:
Resolving Disparities and Inequality in the Current System
Zayn Farooq, Robert Morris University
Abstract: Public education in the United States regularly ranks well below the education systems of other industrialized nations, with the U.S. ranking thirty-seventh in mathematics among OECD countries (Schleicher 7). An increasingly serious problem with widespread implications, the issue of public schooling in the United States has become over-politicized and lost to the crushing gears of bipartisan bureaucracy. At the root of this substandard education is the issue of local funding, which results in deep-rooted inequities causing low-income students to suffer. In the following essay, I determine the shortcomings of our current system, focusing on problematic methods of school finance and the effects of inadequate funding on student educational outcomes. I then explore the role of federal funding as a solution to the United States’ inferior education finance system and review evidence both supporting and opposing its adoption. I conclude with the necessity of moving to a system of federal public school funding and address possible avenues of doing so.
The founding fathers of the United States understood the importance of an educated populace, and the early American government encouraged the creation of publicly funded schools, which became significantly more widespread in the 1830s. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the United States focused on growing and improving access to education, passing legislation aiding in the establishment of schools across the country. As universal public education became increasingly common, the question of minority rights became central to American education. Well into the twentieth century, when minorities were guaranteed the right to education, the issue of access shifted from the previous concern that not enough Americans had access to education to the concern that not enough Americans had access to a quality education, an issue that remains at the forefront of educational policy today (Chen). Quality education is an indispensable aspect of contemporary society, but public education standards in the United States are seriously failing, as evidenced by the low ranking of the U.S. in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an OECD initiative that seeks to ascertain how student outcomes in OECD countries compare. In its most recent report, the United States ranked thirty-seventh in mathematics among seventy-nine OECD countries, below Hungary and barely above Belarus (Schleicher 7). Unfortunately, this ranking is by no means an anomaly; there have been no significant changes in math scores since 2000 when the PISA was first administered (“Highlights of U.S. PISA” 30). This dismal series of results suggests the need for a serious reevaluation of the American education system in order to assess exactly what is driving this lackluster performance in student achievement.
The Elitist American Education System
The United States Constitution does not specifically guarantee a right to education, nor does it mention upon whom the burden of educating the people falls. Thus, each state and territory is tasked with educating its children and funding its schools as each sees fit. In a 2022 report on the necessity of a larger federal role in public education, researcher Sylvia Allegretto, along with her colleagues, writes that the U.S. education system “relies too heavily on state and local resources (particularly property tax revenues)” (2). Obviously, poorer families live in poorer areas, therefore paying less in property taxes. The poorer an area, the less funding the school district receives, and as evidenced by Allegretto and her coauthors; “high-poverty districts get less funding per student than low-poverty districts” (2), a difference amounting to $2,710 per pupil. Wealthier people buy better properties, pay more in property tax, and gain exclusive access to higher-quality education. This system locks families into economic classes; poverty-stricken children receive a substandard education, and face increased difficulty in pursuing secondary education, which lowers their chances of gaining better, higher-paying employment. In a report by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), schools reporting the highest levels of poverty (75% or more of students eligible for the free or reduced-price lunch program) had average math scores 118 points lower than schools reporting the lowest levels of poverty (10% or less of students eligible for the free or reduced-price lunch program) on the PISA (“Highlights of U.S. PISA” 36). The effects of even a “10 percent increase in per-pupil spending each year for all twelve years of public school leads to 0.27 more completed years of education, 7.25 percent higher wages, and a 3.67 percentage-point reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty” (Jackson et al. 2). These effects were especially pronounced among children from low-income families.
Funding increases are linked to immediate benefits in student outcomes as well, with higher funding correlating directly with higher student achievement. A 2021 study showed that funding increases, even those as little as $1,000 per student, significantly improved test scores, high-school graduation rates, and college-going rates (Jackson and Mackevicius 4). Clearly, funding directly impacts student outcomes, but because of the problems inherent to local funding, school districts and low-income students suffer. The American education “system contribute[s] to institutionalizing inequities, especially in the absence of a strong federal effort to counter them” (Allegretto et al. 13). Over 40% of school funding is local, and Allegretto and her colleagues conclude that “spending is not nearly enough, on average, to provide students with an adequate education” (8). In 2020, federal funding for education was 60 billion dollars, accounting for only 7.6% of public school funding (Conman et al. 2). In contrast, state and local funding amounted to 734 billion, accounting for the remaining 92%. In this system, schools rely heavily on the funding that their state and local taxes can muster, leading to a massive funding deficit, not only between local areas, but between states as well, with New York spending the most per pupil, at $24,881, $16,930 more than Utah, which spends the least per pupil at $7,951 (Hanson). With such a vast range of spending occurring across the United States, many public schools do not have the funding nor the resources to provide a quality education, and because of the nature of their funding, enormous disparities exist between schools in the richest and poorest areas. In fact, schools reporting the highest levels of poverty faced a deficit of $5,135 per student between required spending to achieve national average test scores and actual spending, with schools reporting the lowest levels of poverty, possessing on average, a surplus of $1,926 on the same metric (Allegretto et al. 8). In practice, local funding leaves “highest-poverty districts still $2,710 short per student relative to the lowest-poverty districts” (Allegretto et al. 15), a truly massive amount, especially in districts where every penny counts.
Attracting Quality Educators
A quality education depends primarily on the quality of the teacher, which is a direct result of the pay they receive. The link between funding and salary is simple: “any rise in teacher salaries will require greater funding” (Lafortune 20). A 2010 study by Duke University public policy professor Charles Clotfelter and colleagues showed a negative correlation between the ratio of disadvantaged students at a certain school and the number of highly qualified teachers (determined by their test scores) at that school (410). Schools with more disadvantaged students, or those in poorer districts, had fewer highly qualified teachers, with richer school districts, conversely, employing more. “[T]eachers are attracted to positions with higher salaries and … they are more inclined to leave their current post or to leave teaching altogether when alternative salaries are higher” (Clotfelter 403). In essence, schools with more funding offer higher salaries, attracting more highly qualified teachers, leaving underfunded districts with lower quality teachers, which heavily impacts student achievement. The evidence clearly shows that “paying teachers more improves student achievement” (Hendricks 50), suggesting that the solution to better student achievement is hiring and retaining more highly qualified teachers, which is reliant on the salary a district offers, stemming from, once again, the available funding of a certain district. With such massive disparities between schools in high and low-income areas, current federal expenditures are not nearly enough to resolve the inequalities that result from local funding. Despite government intervention providing high-poverty school districts with necessary funds, these districts are still left massively short-changed, with high-poverty school districts earning 14.1% less in revenue than low-poverty school districts (Allegretto et al. 9).
Federal Funding: The Ultimate Solution?
Income and education expenditures clearly have a positive correlation (Bensi et al. 285), and a relatively simple solution to these financial disparities seems to present itself in the form of full federal funding for education in the United States. Federal funding would reduce inequalities between school districts across local and state lines by distributing funds not with equality, but with equity, granting more to the high-poverty school districts that need these funds. This would alleviate student achievement and per-pupil funding disparities between high and low-poverty schools, boosting literacy in the core subjects, and closing the gap between the United States and high-achieving OECD countries in terms of education rankings. According to a report by the Center for American Progress, a federal system of weighted student funding, which provides additional funds for high-poverty school districts “will have the greatest impact on the student population” by “attract[ing] highly qualified teachers, improv[ing] curriculum, and fund[ing] additional programs such as early childhood education” all of which are vital and necessary to student success (Martin).
For all its strengths, there is serious opposition to increased federal funding, with the most prevalent arguments being the potential misuse of funds and the consolidation of power in local school boards. In a system where school boards hold absolute power over annual budgets, a surplus of money could lead to incompetent and harmful decisions. The Washington Post reports that in March of 2021, the federal government granted $122 billion in vital pandemic aid to schools. Despite their need, “school systems throughout the country reported spending less than 15 percent of the federal funding” with the hardest hit districts, facing shortened school years and technology struggles, spending “5 percent or less of their … money last school year” (Lumpkin and Jayaraman). Local boards, in an attempt to make the funds last, are actively hurting the progress of their students, withholding funds during a crucial period of rebuilding and relearning after a global pandemic. Chicago City Public Schools, where students lost an estimated 20 weeks of learning in math and 21 in reading, “spent just over 6% of almost $1.8 billion” (Jacobson). Researchers at Georgetown University estimated that the district would have to spend just over 50% of its aid to remediate the steep learning loss that students faced (“Calculating Investments”). With more federal funding, local school boards are given more power, making the impacts of their decisions, both positive and negative, further felt.
While compelling, this argument fails to comprehend that radical changes to the current funding system will take time. When managing billions of dollars and the futures of the 50 million children enrolled in public schools across the country (“Fast Facts”), state and local governments must go through bureaucratic processes to ensure the proper allocation of funding for every student, especially in high-poverty districts. The massive influx of pandemic funding was a solitary grant meant to keep schools floating, but these federal funds did not fundamentally change the still biased system of local funding for schools, and school boards, in desperate need of these funds, sought to “make the money last, according to interviews with school officials and education experts in six states” (Lumpkin and Jayaraman). Foreseeing the inevitability of federal funds sinking back to previous levels, schools looked to maximize the grants, expanding their potential use beyond just the current school year. With regular and sufficient funding, school boards would not be forced to choose between current and future students, but would be guaranteed the necessary funds every school year.
Putting aside for a moment the necessity of any proposed system of federal funding, another significant obstacle is the legal difficulty of implementing such a system. The first of these conflicts is Constitutional. In the Supreme Court case San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the court found that education is not a Constitutional right and that Texas’ educational funding system was legally sound and did not infringe upon any rights guaranteed to American citizens (United States Supreme Court). Texas’ public schools rely on local funding, and through this decision, the Supreme Court, while acknowledging the inequity inherent to the current system, maintained the legality of local funding, providing no incentive for the adoption of federal funding. In view of the fact that education is not a Constitutional right, the federal government has no responsibility to fund schools nor to provide education to its citizens. Furthermore, federal funding could create overdependence on the government, which in turn, could result in “increased federal control of education'' (Mongeau). If the government is given the power to grant funding, then it also holds the power to withhold funding, once again bringing into question a variety of potential Constitutional breaches. Establishing a Constitutional amendment to guarantee a federal right to education for all Americans seems the ultimate solution; simultaneously solidifying what the United Nations calls a “fundamental human right” (“What You Need to Know About the Right to Education”), and compelling the federal government to provide for the public education of American students, lessening or even eliminating the impacts of local funding.
The dismal state of the American education system is, in part, due to the issue of local funding. In this essay, I have examined a varied selection of reputable literature regarding the issue of local school funding and the viability of federal funding as a possible solution. The public education system is fraught with institutionalized inequalities, exacerbated by a lack of resources and necessary funds. The current system of local funding actively hinders students and locks them into economic classes. To improve the quality of the U.S. education system, we must enact an institutional change from local to federal funding. This change would have extensive impacts: from teacher salaries to the changes that increased educational expenditures would have on student achievement, through initiatives such as improved curriculums, early education programs, and after school programs. Arguments against federal funding of education chiefly point to concerns about the mismanagement of increased federal funds, but these arguments present weak and biased evidence against a structural change in funding. To improve our education system, improve student performance, and achieve equity in educational opportunity we need to move to a fully federally funded system. Only then will we be able to improve our standing in international education rankings to levels on par with the highest achieving OECD countries.
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