Is Money spent on Public #Education Equitable?

A longstanding issue in school finance research and litigation concerns whether money spent on public education is equitable. Traditionally, researchers examined if money spent on public education was equitable across districts within the same state. Given that public education is partially funded by local property taxes, districts with higher property taxes generally spent more to educate students than districts with lower property taxes. In response to these interdistrict inequities in public education spending, many state legislatures created formulas to provide more aid to districts with lower property wealth (i.e. Texas and California).

Then, as more data became available, researchers began to examine if teacher salaries were equitable across schools within the same district. A number of studies found that teacher salaries were higher in low-poverty and low-minority schools compared to high-poverty and high-minority schools in the same district. Some researchers argue that using district-wide averages of teacher salaries hides inequities in teacher salaries across schools and that examining resource allocation at a more granular level may reveal previously hidden inequities in spending on public education.

Given my experience as a math teacher in two urban schools, I hypothesized that the way that teachers and students are sorted and grouped within classrooms in schools may also give rise to inequities in spending for students within the same school. Some people refer to a phenomenon which I call a “school within a school” to mean that one group of students in a school may have a completely different educational experience than another group of students. I questioned whether students within the same school received equitable educational resources.

Due to the limited availability of relevant data, very few studies to date have been able to calculate individualized costs of educating specific students. However, I was able to obtain student-level data for all high school students (> 40,000) in a large urban school district and analyze these students’ course schedules and teacher salary information to allocate all teacher salary expenditures to individual students. Specifically, I calculated how much was spent on each student in terms of teacher salary expenditures; this calculation also accounted for class sizes, the length and duration of courses, and teacher and student course loads.

Here’s what I found:

1. The amounts we spend on individual students vary substantially for students within the same school.

I figured that there would be some variation in student-level teacher salary expenditures within schools, but I was surprised that the vast majority (86.5%) of variation in student-level teacher salary expenditures in this district was due to within-school differences in spending, compared to only 13.5% of the variation due to between-school differences. In this district, teacher salaries did not vary dramatically between schools, which resulted in the vast majority of variation in teacher salaries (and student-level teacher salary expenditures) resulting from within-school differences in spending. So, while the district allocates resources equitably across schools, it does not allocate resources equitably to individual students within the same school.

2. Higher achieving students get more resources.

The greatest number of resource inequities resulted from sorting of teachers and students according to student prior achievement. For example, I found that the district spent 1.13 times more to educate high- and average-achieving students compared to the lowest achieving group of students. This difference is spending was not the result of high- and average-achieving students taking more courses than low-achieving students; instead, it was the result of high- and average-achieving students being more likely to be taught by more experienced and better paid teachers, while the lowest achieving group of students were more likely to be assigned to novice teachers, who had lower salaries than other teachers. This 13% difference in teacher salary expenditures was the average spending difference between higher and lower achieving students across all of the high schools; within some individual schools, the differential between money spent on higher and lower achieving students was dramatic. For example, one school spent 44% more on White and Asian students with high or average achievement than on African American students with low achievement.

In some cases, specifically in math courses, students in advanced math courses benefited not only from more experienced teachers, but they also had smaller class sizes. The result is that the district spent twice as much per student for an advanced math course than for a regular track math course on average. Advanced placement (AP) courses were also costly due to experienced teachers with higher salaries and smaller class sizes, and White and Asian students were disproportionately overrepresented in AP courses in the majority of schools, given their achievement level.

3. Low-income and minority students may receive inferior resources in more diverse schools.

Though students were primarily sorted based on achievement, student race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status were related to student achievement, and in a few schools, I found resource differences for students of different races/ethnicities and socioeconomic status above and beyond student achievement differences. I examined whether within-school resource allocation patterns differed across school context because several high schools enrolled less than 30% of low-income students while other schools enrolled more than 60% low-income students. I found that there are more resource inequities for low-income and minority students in racially/ethnically and socioeconomically diverse schools. For example, when White and Asian middle-class students constitute a substantial proportion of the student population, low-income and minority students are less likely to be enrolled in AP courses and are more likely to have lower achieving peers, given their individual achievement. In schools with larger proportions of low-income and minority students, I did not find differences in AP course-taking and peer achievement for students of differing socioeconomic status, once controlling for student achievement.

4. Student choice plays a role in how resources are allocated within schools, but there’s still a lot we can do to improve resource equity.

In discussing the study, I have come across many people who believe that these inequities are the result of teacher and student choices, for which the district is neither responsible nor obligated to address. I certainly agree that the district is not solely at fault for resource inequity; the district has many more competing demands that I investigate in my study. Clearly, choices–of students, of parents, of teachers, and of district and school leaders–are factors in how resources are allocated within schools, but these choices are often made with imperfect information. District and school leaders can examine which students enroll in various courses and work to ensure that low-income and minority students are equally likely to be enrolled in advanced courses, given their prior achievement. School leaders may need to educate parents about course offerings, encourage students to enroll in courses, and create support groups for students who are taking advanced courses for the first time. Further, education leaders and policymakers can work to ensure that students in all courses and academic tracks are equally likely to be taught by experienced teachers by incentivizing the most effective teachers to teach students at a wide range of achievement levels.

So what’s the bottom line? Teachers and students are non-randomly sorted within schools, and this sorting may result in schools spending inequitable amounts of money to educate various students, in addition to other inequities in teacher experience, class sizes, high-achieving peers, and academically rigorous curricula.

It’s much easier to analyze district-wide level averages of per-pupil expenditures than to try to understand resource differences for individual students. But public education is a complicated endeavor and if we limit ourselves to examining resource equity using only district-wide averages, we may be ignoring potential inequities that occur in resource differences across schools and students. And if we want to understand why racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps persist, we have to move away from district-wide averages and try to understand the educational experiences of individual students.

For more information about the study or author, please contact Rebecca Wolf at

About the Author: Rebecca Wolf is a newly minted Ph.D. who graduated from the University of Maryland (College Park) this past May. She is currently seeking publication opportunities for this work.

For all of Cloaking Inequity’s post on School Finance click here.

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