Almost every education policy debate serves as a partial proxy for something else. Debates about expanding pre-K access are often really about disagreements regarding the scope of the federal government and/or money. Debates about school choice are often about protecting the real estate-based privileges of neighborhood school boundaries or efforts to blur church-state boundaries. Debates about the Common Core State Standards are often secretly about the Muslim Brotherhood, the United Nations, and space aliens with plans for world domination.

The Fordham Institute’s new Metro D.C. School Spending Explorer is a useful reminder that school funding arguments are no different. Whatever the surface appearance of these debates, they’re almost always implicitly about deeper theories of justice. And those get at core elements of our social contract (both articulated and unarticulated). What do we, as a community, owe to families and students as far as educational resources are concerned? Consider these two options:

  1. If we believe that all students should be treated equally in a public education system, presumably we should we commit equal resources to each student, regardless of their background.
  2. If we believe that some students may, through no fault of their own, face crippling educational challenges because of their families’ limited resources, presumably we should compensate by investing additional public funds to establish a baseline of equitable educational opportunity.

It seems to me that that second view has remains the dominant one in American politics—at least at the level of rhetoric. Most politicians and education officials accept that schools should invest extra resources in supporting students from low-income families. The problem, however, is that their funding formulas don’t always live up to that promise.

Fordham’s data explorer helps increase transparency around school funding.

In part, this is because these numbers permit almost infinite slicing. Consider, for instance, these competing analyses showing that New York City charter schools get both much more and actually much less money than district schools. There are a number of different ways to frame school funding, and it’s usually possible to find a way to reformulate the data to get results to confirm whatever argument we might be interested in making.

As Fordham notes in a blog post accompanying the new data,

There are lots of wonky ways to compute the fairness of education spending, but we’re going to use a measure that makes sense to us. Namely: How much extra does a district spend on each low-income student a school serves? Compared to what districts spend on behalf of non-poor students? Ten percent? Twenty percent? Fifty percent?…[N]ote: These numbers are for operational costs only; they don’t include facilities funding, which is where DC’s charters are at a huge funding disadvantage compared to DCPS.

Still, Fordham’s data explorer helps increase transparency around school funding. It doesn’t slice data at the district or state level—it drills all the way down to school level funding. This illuminates things that have otherwise been hard to see. For instance, Fordham found that Maryland’s Prince George’s County spends only about 2 percent more on students in high-poverty schools than it spends on students in low-poverty schools. By comparison, Arlington, Virginia spends 80 percent more on students in its high-poverty schools than it spends on students in low-poverty schools.

Of course, these numbers need context: Arlington has only two high-poverty schools (where 75 percent or more of enrolled students enrolled in free or reduced lunch programs), while Prince George’s County has fifty such schools. The average income in Prince George’s County, according to Fordham’s analysis, is over $30,000 less than the average income in Arlington. The median home value in Arlington is over 2.5 times the median home value in Prince George’s County. That is, Prince George’s has limited public resources of its own and a much more extensive challenge when it comes to funding low-income schools better.

Fordham acknowledges this in that same blog post:

Arlington—with its sky-high tax base and gentrifying population—definitely goes the distance for its high-poverty schools. On the other hand, poverty-stricken Prince George’s County appears to be doing practically nothing to spend what little money it has on its toughest schools. (It makes us wonder how it meets federal “supplement, not supplant” requirements.)

They conclude that the state of Maryland ought to do more for Prince George’s County. And that could work, sure. But the school funding variance in Fordham’s analysis points me in a different direction. This isn’t just a matter of interstate difference, of Maryland inadequately filling in the gaps for Prince George’s County. After all, there are also considerable differences in how various Virginia districts (Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax) support their low-income students.

Which is mostly to note that it might take more than states to establish a just baseline of funding for students who are enrolled in high-poverty schools in the D.C. metro area (and the rest of the country). Nearly every state has funding formula problems, and those seem to be extraordinarily tough to reform. Which, for what it’s worth, sounds a bit like the sort of educational equity problem that we often look to the federal government to address.

Note: For more data on American school funding, see New America’s Federal Education Budget Project.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

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Conor Williams is a Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Find him on Twitter: @ConorPWilliams