Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Adequacy of School District Spending in the U.S. – School Finance 101

The Adequacy of School District Spending in the U.S. – School Finance 101
The Adequacy of School District Spending in the U.S.

New Project at School Finance Indicators Database

With Matt Di Carlo & Mark Weber

Full research brief

Press release


Data visualization

It’s fairly common knowledge that U.S. school districts vary widely in terms of funding. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, in an ideal school funding system, we would expect to see differences between districts in their spending levels, even big differences, for the simple reason that the cost of educating students varies a great deal across districts. 

For instance, some districts serve larger shares of high-need students than others, and the former require more resources to achieve a given level of student performance. Similarly, like any employer, districts have to pay competitive wages, and labor costs also vary substantially by location. Teachers in areas with high costs of living, for example, have to be paid more than their colleagues in small rural towns where living is less expensive. 

In short, unequal spending is acceptable and even desirable if it is aligned with unequal costs. The key question is whether districts have the resources to meet their students’ needs. In other words, is school district spending adequate?

This research brief presents key findings from a new public database of funding adequacy for over 12,000 U.S. public school districts. The database (the District Cost Database) allows one to compare each district’s actual per-pupil spending with estimates of adequate per-pupil spending levels—that is, spending levels that would be required to achieve the goal of U.S. average test scores (a common “benchmark” with which the models assess adequacy). The data are for the 2017-18 school year.

The brief reports some good news. Thousands of districts enjoy funding levels above and beyond estimated adequate levels. You can find these districts in every single U.S. state. In some cases, funding is two or three times higher than the targets. Even in states such as Arizona and New Mexico, where large majorities of students attend schools in underfunded districts, there are numerous districts in which spending exceeds estimated requirements.

Yet these districts co-exist with thousands of other school systems, some located within driving distance or even in the next town over, where investment is so poorly aligned with need that funding levels are a fraction of estimated costs. Districts with negative funding gaps are CONTINUE READING: The Adequacy of School District Spending in the U.S. – School Finance 101