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School Funding: Learn the facts and how to use them

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By Amanda Litvinov with reporting by Brian Washington

School funding is a mix of federal, state, and local funding sources distributed through complex and ever-changing formulas, making it all too easy for elected leaders to use half-truths and lies to slash education budgets and divert taxpayer dollars from public schools. Pro-public education advocates can’t allow that to happen.

Don’t shy away from making the case for better school funding. Just stick to the facts.

Below, we outline four critical points about school funding, with a straightforward bottom line fact that you can use, plus tips on how to be a strong advocate for school resources.

FACT: America’s schools are not ‘flush with cash, though President Trump (and many others) make such claims. 

Most education funding (roughly 90 percent) comes from state and local sources. But K-12 state funding since the Great Recession has failed to keep up with rising enrollments. According to research by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, per pupil funding is lower today than it was in 2008 in 23 states.

Mississippi is one of those states.

“Since fiscal year 2008, state leaders have created a public education funding crisis to the tune of $1.5 billion,” says Mississippi Education Association President Joyce Helmick, who has 37 years of experience working in Mississippi classrooms.

That amount could add more than 5,000 teachers, says Helmick. “Imagine how that can help our students flourish with smaller classrooms, more reading, math, and science courses, and more arts and athletics.”

Federal education spending is stuck at pre-2007 levels. That’s bad news, because federal education programs provide states with funding to protect vulnerable populations of students—those who are from low-income families, those learning English, and those with disabilities to name only a few. Dwindling federal money puts even more pressure on state and local budgets.

The increasing reliance on local revenues exacerbates inequities, since wealthier communities can pass local levies and pay higher property taxes than communities with fewer financial resources.

Bottom line: Per-pupil funding in most states, and federal education spending, have declined to dangerously low levels. State and federal lawmakers should be held accountable.


FACT: Voucher schemes drain resources from neighborhood public schools. 

To claim otherwise is outrageous.

Voucher pushers gloss over the fact that making public education money “portable”—that is, removing the average per-pupil funding for each student who receives a voucher—quickly hacks into funds needed to sustain a public school system. The per pupil average may not reflect the resources required to educate that particular student.

Here’s why: Research shows that most vouchers go to middle-class kids who already attend private schools. These students typically require fewer resources to educate than children who are living in poverty, learning English, or have special needs.

And the costs of keeping the lights on, maintaining the building and school campus, transporting kids, and keeping appropriate class sizes are costs that barely go down if a few students leave.

History teacher Jonathan Parker believes voucher diehards know full well that their schemes drain resources from public schools. He teaches at Glendale Union High School in Arizona, where Gov. Doug Ducey has drastically expanded the state’s voucher program.

“Politicians starving public schools create a self-fulfilling prophecy—programs are cut, class sizes swell, quality teachers leave, thereby concocting an artificial demand for privatization,” says Parker.

That’s precisely what President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are doing at the federal level. They will pull taxpayer dollars out of critical programs like Title I, which adds money to public schools that serve low-income kids, to coerce states to follow their agenda.

“Whatever remedies privatization offers is nothing that a properly funded public school would not also provide to all students,” says Jonathan Parker.

Bottom line: Taxpayer dollars cannot support two education systems. Diverting our money from public schools that serve all children to unaccountable private schools is reckless and wrong.


FACT: Education spending makes a difference—especially for low-income students. 

Do not allow anyone to tell you that the U.S. spends too much on education.

Yes, overall U.S. education spending is on the high side among developed nations. But our rate of child poverty far exceeds almost all other countries included in such comparisons. Our schools must spend to counter the effects of poverty while many European countries and Canada, for example, alleviate those conditions through other government spending.

The good news is that the services public schools provide are working. For poor children, a 20 percent increase in per-pupil spending each year of their K-12 education is associated with nearly a full additional year of completed education, 25 percent higher earnings, and a 20 percent reduction in the annual incidence of poverty in adulthood (Source: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2014 and 2016).

Also: More than 30 years of research shows that smaller class sizes are better. Class size reduction is one of only four evidence-based reforms that have been proven to increase student achievement. All students benefit from individual, active attention from their teachers, which is compromised when class sizes balloon.

Bottom line: Money matters a lot in education, and it matters how it is spent.


FACT: Investing in education is one of the best ways to strengthen the economy. 

Corporate tax breaks and tax cuts are a race to the bottom—a short-sighted approach to economic development, say Noah Berger and Peter Fisher of the Economic Policy Institute. Their research shows that providing expanded access to high quality education is likely the very best thing that a state government can do to bolster its long-term prosperity.

Good public schools attract businesses and produce well-prepared workers who eventually contribute to state revenues through taxes, allowing the state to keep investing in education—a cycle of success.

That’s why educators and parents support a bold proposal in the Oregon legislature that would, among other things, implement a corporate activity tax that would lower income taxes for middle and low-income individuals while raising $1.4 billion for education.

The Oregon Education Investment Initiative would reverse severe underfunding that has resulted in some of the highest class sizes in the nation. It would also add teacher mentoring and early childhood education programs.

Research by NEA shows that the initiative would bolster multiple sectors of the state’s economy, adding 23.6 thousand more jobs than forecasted for 2018, with more than two-thirds of the new jobs for non-teacher school support staff.

More state lawmakers should pursue sustainable investments in education, says Prof. Bruce D. Baker, who heads up the Education Law Center at Rutgers University.

“Equitable and adequate funding is a prerequisite for everything else,” Baker says. “No other strategies or programs or formulas are going to improve schools without sustained and stable funding.”

Bottom line: It’s time to stop giving handouts to corporations that don’t need them and invest taxpayer dollars in our students instead.

Now that you’ve brushed up on four essential facts about school funding, what can you do with this knowledge? You can share it with your networks, persuade policymakers, and, when necessary, debunk myths when you hear them. Here are a few tips for doing so:

When you’re talking school funding….


  • Share how education funding affects your classroom. Personal stories help elected leaders and the public understand that students and educators feel every funding cut.
  • Emphasize the return on investing in public education. State leaders should know they’ll have bragging rights for investing in neighborhood public schools.
  • Connect the dots: Voucher schemes drain money from public schools. Taxpayers should not be asked to support two separate systems of education, and everyone around you should know it.



  • Don’t repeat the opposition’s argument and avoid using their misleading words. Your goal should be to assert the truth and back it up without re-stating the myth. Call a voucher a voucher—not “choice,” a tax credit, or an education savings account.
  • Don’t just say what doesn’t work—name the solutions as well. There are many proven ways to improve schools, such as reducing class sizes so that teachers can provide more one-on-one attention, offering a well-rounded curriculum, and increasing parental involvement. That’s how taxpayer funds should be spent.



Educators are among the most trusted members of the community. When you speak up on why public school funding matters, people will listen.

13 responses to “School Funding: Learn the facts and how to use them

  1. 1. Sounds like there’s too much administrative staff gobbling up school budgets. What do you want to bet you could lay off a lot of office staff and have teachers do some of that work for a small pay bonus?

    2. The teacher shortage is in large part caused by the unressonably high barriers to become a teacher. It used to be you needed a bachelor’s degree, now you need a master’s degree.

    3. Also there is little to no portability of teaching credentials between states, which makes it hard for teachers who move to stay in the business of teaching.

    4. More spending in impoverished districts helps, but more spending in well-to-do school districts just goes to buy smartboards, fancy items for the sports team, or the latest overpriced text book from a corporate publisher in an area of knowledge that hasn’t fundamentally changed much in decades.

    5. Schools get ripped off left and right. I remember in sixth grade the teacher had to spend $80 on a couple rocks for a lesson about geology, he could have bought them for $5 at a local hardware distributor but he would have had to wait all year to get reimbursed so he got it through the approved catalog instead at 16x the price. Examples like these abound!

    6. Most Americans don’t get a pension, I don’t get a pension. Why should teachers? I get a generous employer match to a 401k and I think that new teachers should get the same as every other American. And please don’t tell me how difficult your job is to justify it, I work 70 hours a week myself. Pensions are big part of Education spending, let’s face it.

  2. I got involved advocating for students for their Title One funding and the students and I suffered devastating consequences. Administrators and their minions lied about how the funding was used and bullied me for three years until I suffered a breakdown. No, there is no teacher union in South Carolina.
    Compaints are discouraged here though. Therefore, I offer two solutions. Create legislation to: 1) hold school boards, districts and school administrators accountable for the distribution of school funding by mandating an outside accounting firm to review monies spent; and 2) make professional development in personnel management mandatory for ALL school personnel.

  3. Are you actually saying that public schools are accountable? the only accountability left is standardized testing, and teachers are fighting even that. Oversight of teachers by other school officials is NOT accountability. I certainly know that parents have very little say in what goes on in classrooms. In fact, they have no real way to know what goes on in classrooms, and usually don’t find out what objectionable points areuntil its been going for a long time, and the kids are good and brainwashed. I was rather shocked that my children were being taught about the tenants of one certain religion that is often in the news lately, for example, because schools had never taught any other religion to my knowledge. By the time we found out of course our children had already had a formed opinion on the subject. This was not a broad teaching of different religions, but rather an attempt to make one look better. By the time parents got wind of it, it had already been done. Where is the accountability?

  4. Thank you for mentioning the Oregon Education Investment Initiative. We are having a very difficult time working to get success with that and it looks like we may be going back to a ballot initiative again with it. Our house Republicans want to continue to take teacher pensions to make up the budget shortfalls and will not let go of that before a compromise on the corporate tax increase can be made. It’s sad and frustrating to live and teach in a state where adequate school funding is not a priority. The Freedom Foundation has now spent millions of dollars in Oregon to weaken the teacher’s unions and lobby their cause. I suspect they are supporting the Republican agenda financially which adds to the stronghold on the budget issue. If the money they spent on negative advertising and lies went to education, we would have a huge portion of the education budget shortfall fixed for the next biennium. That would only happen if they really cared about education of course.

    1. Many people are unhappy with the highly political climate of public schools, and wish to have a choice in how their children are influenced. That is why the voucher system means so much to parents. Personally, I feel that the teachers in our school don’t bother to hide their political preferances, and their opinions on world events. This is disheartening when they do not reflect those of my family. Maybe if teachers started to act more professional, and took their role to be one of informing rather then molding young people, there would be more parents that would be willing to give public schools a shot.

  5. “It’s time to stop giving handouts to corporations that don’t need them and invest taxpayer dollars in our students instead.”

    Like… preparing for the lawsuits from those victimized by boys who “feel like a girl” today just to get a peak. Kids are not stupid.

    With in todays society, I PRAY that something happens and a lawsuit results soon before my daughter and countless others are victimized. Why do High school and Middle school teachers not speak out against these politicians who don’t have a clue? Why is the “FEELINGS” of a few put ahead of the SAFTEY of many???

    1. You posted, “I PRAY something happens” (presumably a sex offense) that results in a lawsuit. What does this have to do with public school funding? Additionally, are you actually asking God to create a situation where someone’s child is victimized to the point of requiring the involvement of law enforcement just to advance your “feelings” about gender identity? At least we can agree “kids” are not stupid.

      1. errrr… if just one, let alone multiple, 1 million dollar (plus) lawsuits… where are such monies likely to come from?
        More specifically, are such lawsuits not likely to have a gross impact on district resources …and teacher pay??

        Just as with the saying, “give them enough rope to hang themselves,” it is clear that many (or most) in academia, will not listen to reason. Can anyone argue against the fact that it is ONLY a matter of time before young women …our daughters are victimized? …your daughter, niece or …

        So as calloused as it may sound, but with no less regret, just as with a drunk driver who repeatedly, arrogantly and insistently refuses to listen to reason, what is left for anyone to do other than to pray that (it be only) the one(s) who are responsible – the ones with the power to change – the ones bent on such an agenda be the ones
        1) FIRST to experience the result of their actions (policies and/or political agendas)
        2) affected by their own doings enough …and specifically, to the point that that they would act, speak stand up and REVERSE their own doings – BEFORE their choices victimize and PERMANENTLY impact others …MY family … and YOUR sons and daughters?

        So, not praying for ANY victimization of ANY (children), but specifically for enough of an impact to spur them to action – to preventing the clear and obvious coming victimization of others…

        And I am not sure of your implications by “my ‘feelings’ about gender identity.” My ONLY concern here is for my children …and your daughters!

        We, as adults, MUST grow up and put our political differences aside in support of what is right … for KIDS – our young daughters.
        I cannot remain quiet and idle. I will not allow others to sacrifice my children on the altar of political correctness.

        I think I know some of your “feelings,” but please, can you express some legitimate concerns??

        What would it take before YOU likewise take such a stand??

  6. “… unaccountable private schools…:”

    I thought that private/charter schools are proud of their students’ test scores, and if not, isn’t that an easy fix with requiring them to take the same standardized tests??? (I thought that they all HAD to do that already…)

    1. Maybe it is just me, but I struggle with this at times. Might this be another sad political tactic to spin one’s agenda!  …sorry NEA, that one you just might have to own that one unless you can finish the research/article.
      If a charter school can educate a child for less than the public system. Doesn’t that leave a bigger piece of the pie in state coffers for the public schools???
      …and that is not to mention the benefits that many of those kids leave the public sector….. FOR A REASON. Like it or lump it, some kids need other than a general ed classroom. Case in point … ever hear of “special ed” or “resource teachers”???
      And if students succeed better elsewhere (i.e. a pull out program, charter, or private school), isn’t that more important?  Or is the NEA keeping maximum membership funds the ideal???

      Maybe we should all watch a great movie that speaks to this EXACT problem… “Waiting for Superman”???  you NEED to watch it, first as an EDUCATOR, second as a member of the NEA!

      Something else to consider…
      The public school system was certainly not good enough for obama’s kids!  Why?
      school choice

      I know, I know.  Foul language. 
      But consider, tell me this; if am I off my rocker…
      What is the difference between a *special ed program,*  *gifted,*  *remedial* programs, or even *trade schools*???  Don’t they ALL cater to a specific population for a very specific purpose?  Are there not specific schools better equipped for EACH specific need??
      I’d LOVE to hear your thoughts **especially** if you have seen the movie (which is on Netflix) “Waiting for Superman”!!!

      1. I’ve seen the movie and read the accompanying novel. I recommend you read the book and do some more research because a movie != facts.

        1. Charter schools have a neutral effect on test scores. They shouldn’t be proud.

        2. They achieve neutral test scores for cheaper this by not serving the whole population. A recent investigative piece by NPR about Ohio (i think) showed that there is a SIGNIFICANT difference between the number of special education students in charter schools vs. in public schools. The reason that special ed, gifted, english langue learning programs, etc. are different is because their are legal standards that require schools to provide certain resources to those populations. Generally, charter schools don’t provide those resources, or if they do, they provide fewer.

        3. Betsy’s Voucher program and accountability standards would gut the protections that exist today for charters. Please watch her confirmation hearing when she discusses “accountability.” She says that she believes in accountability for religious schools, but is SO unwilling to specify what they are accountable for that we have to assume she’s going to lower or change accountability standards.

        4. You should go back to public school and learn some writing skills 😉 Your writing is near impossible to read.

  7. “…if a few students leave…appropriate class sizes…”
    Yet a few lines down, “…class sizes swell…”

    Are these points contradictory?

    If class sizes go up (let alone “swell”) aren’t districts making better use of space and (though not preferred) staff resources?

    Personally having a child with special needs, the public system is not always equipped to service him. Likewise all of the other students attending such specialized schools – hence why they are not in the public system… and thriving!

    1. I also am skeptical about claims about class size. The research is not so onesided.

      1. You need to reduce class sizes significantly – 33% or to about 18 students – in order to get benefits. That’s a BIG reduction.

      2. That reduction would increase the number of teachers required by 150%. All the evidence says that class size reductions don’t help if you don’t have qualified teachers. We have a teacher shortage. I think we need to focus on recruiting and retaining talent, rather than making reforms that require the amount of teachers we need.

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