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Getting around the funding gap: how to equalize opportunities for low-income students

Posted July 24, 2018

The latest government data on school finances is out, and the results aren’t pretty: deep financial inequalities exist nationally between wealthy and poor school districts.

For many, that fact isn’t at all surprising. When schools are funded largely by local property taxes, the most affluent districts consequently contain wealthier schools. And that’s a problem, many educators believe, because, to overcome their disadvantages, low-income children require more resources.

Thanks to the recession, The Hechinger Report finds we’ve actually been moving in the wrong direction. “There are signs that the funding gap between rich and poor might have grown larger in the aftermath of the great recession,” says Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. When states ran out of money after 2008, extra funding in poor districts was curbed while rich communities continued to spend.

This has left us with a funding gap that exists today, concludes the report. While this gap is smaller in some states, there are six – Nevada, Illinois, Virginia, Maryland, New Hampshire, and Maine – where students in rich districts flat out receive more funds than students in poor districts. And nationally, “the 25 percent of school districts with the highest amounts of student poverty received 3.4 percent fewer funds per child than the 25 percent wealthiest districts during the 2014-15 school year.” This equates to a funding gap of $449 per student.

Instead of chipping away at institutionalized inequalities, disproportionate spending cements us in an archaic past where “separate and un-equal” reign. Ultimately, funding for all children must be equalized. And while we work towards that, in the meantime, the least we can do is establish and protect equal access.

If today, the schools with the most funding remain in the wealthiest neighborhoods, then let’s make sure poor students can access those schools – and therefore equally receive the same opportunities that wealthier families are afforded.

San Antonio is a prime example that equalizing access is both possible and effective. Some of the city’s most highly sought-after specialty schools do receive substantially more funding; its CAST career schools have been gifted $10 million since 2015, notes The Hechinger Report. And yet, student bodies are economically diverse “by design” of the San Antonio ISD.

The district ensures low-income students enroll at its top schools by actively monitoring the process and “promoting the schools in neighborhoods with uneven access to internet, social media and other information platforms.” Seats are also awarded to students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch through a specialized SchoolMint lottery. And as a result, “CAST Tech’s first class was split evenly between families earning above and below $44,000 per year” confirms district data.

Having low-income students attend school alongside the wealthy at the district’s most well-funded schools opens up another world – and it’s not all about academics. With extra-curriculars like Toast Masters, camping, mock interviews, and lacrosse, students are exposed to activities that are few and far between at under-funded schools. And that’s key to a low-income child’s future success, believes CAST Tech’s principal Melissa Alcala. When they enter the workplace, they’ll feel comfortable among co-workers from more privileged backgrounds, she explains. “There’s so many places where income disparity shows up,” echoes Kate Rogers, a former H-E-B executive. Rogers helped start CAST because companies like H-E-B in San Antonio were struggling to find qualified employees for high-paying tech jobs.

Putting low-income students in line for those good-paying jobs, the kind that can propel families into the middle class – in one of the most economically segregated cities in the country – is especially promising: if we can level the field in K-12, we can level it everywhere else.

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