Splitting the Bill: Understanding Education Finance Equity

School finance poses a unique challenge for policymakers and advocates alike. The consequences of school finance policy are monumental for students — it has a direct effect on the educational opportunities they will be able to access. At the same time, the complicated mechanics of how dollars move from taxpayers to classrooms can rival that of high-end Swiss watches.

Changing how dollars are raised and distributed to be more clearly aligned with student and community needs is essential to building a higher-performing, more equitable system of public education. But doing so requires a deep understanding of the policy gears and springs that power the movement of educational dollars. It’s critical that policymakers and advocates concerned with educational excellence and equity build fluency in the details of school finance systems.

Splitting the Bill, a new series of Bellwether education finance equity briefs, serves as a crash-course to demystify complexities embedded in school finance systems.

A good place to start? Understanding that where the money for public schools comes from creates challenges for policymakers. The vast majority of funding for K-12 schools comes from state and local governments (federal funding accounts for less than 10% of public school revenues), but the combination of state and local dollars often looks different from district to district. That variance is a product of two important variables: 1) the taxable property wealth per-pupil within a district, and 2) the level of student learning needs. Districts that have relatively less taxable property wealth and relatively higher student learning needs should receive more funding from the state to account for those differences.

Unfortunately, that’s not always how it plays out in practice. State school funding formulas take many different forms and attempt to account for the different wealth and student learning needs of school districts, but often fall short. These shortcomings can have many sources, from opaque formulas disconnected from student needs to inadequate “weights” to support students with particular learning needs (e.g., low-income students, English language learners, and special education students). In many states, problems in state school finance systems have led to litigation that can catalyze policy change.

Reading our Splitting the Bill series is a good way to better understand school finance generally, but true fluency in your state’s school funding system requires analyzing a lot of data and legislation. That technical work should start with collecting, cleaning, and exploring district demographic and finance data from state and federal sources, paired with building knowledge of your state’s funding policies and any relevant litigation.

Building this understanding isn’t easy — it requires a strong technical and analytical skill set. It’s why we’re developing these skills through a series of school finance equity training sessions with a cohort of state-level policy advocacy organizations. We’re building their capacity to use R to clean, analyze, and visualize school finance data from their states with the goal of pursuing reforms that create more equitable funding systems.

Developing a command of the details within school funding systems can reveal both the benign and malign impacts of different policy choices. Spending on K-12 education makes up the largest share of general fund expenditures for state governments, but there are relatively few people in each state that truly understand how those dollars currently move and, more importantly, how they should move to better serve students.

It’s time for more equity-minded policymakers and advocates to take a deep dive into the wonky details of school finance policy.