Disparate public-school funding greatly affects students’ achievements

Bruce D. Baker is professor and chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Miami School of Education and Human Development. Photo: David Paula/University of Miami

By Barbara Gutierrez

Bruce D. Baker is professor and chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Miami School of Education and Human Development. Photo: David Paula/University of Miami

Disparate public-school funding greatly affects students’ achievements

By Barbara Gutierrez
Professor Bruce D. Baker, a leading expert on how states allocate public-school funding, explains how underfunding of certain school districts can affect outcomes.

Professor Bruce D. Baker is the new chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Miami School of Education and Human Development.

A native of Vermont, Baker was bit by the teaching bug while working at a summer academic camp in New Jersey where he taught biology to academically talented students.

He has been a professor at the University of Kansas and at the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University. For the past two decades, he has devoted his time to studying how public schools are funded in the United States and trying to find ways to measure if that funding is fair and adequate. He has served as an expert witness in court cases focusing on the adequacy of state funding.

In addition, Baker has authored and coauthored a multitude of peer-reviewed research articles and law review articles, as well as influential policy reports for organizations that include the Economic Policy Institute, Learning Policy Institute, and Center for American Progress. He is the author of two books: “Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students” and “School Finance and Education Equity: Lessons from Kansas.”

He responded to queries about his work and addressed how school funding affects our communities.

What are some of the major problems with public-school funding and how can they be improved?

The idea behind our public education system in general is the idea that we want to give all kids—wherever they are—equal opportunities to strive for high outcomes and meet certain goals and be college and career ready.

Outcome goals and high expectations are embedded into the system. Anyone who has worked in a Florida public school knows that there is a great emphasis on state tests (the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) and getting certain scores and striving for outcomes. We are focused on the outcomes; we expect kids to meet those outcomes and put pressure on teachers to get them there.

Where we have fallen flat is that we never took the time in most states to figure out how to calibrate, how to set up the funding so that it would pay for enough teachers and provide enough spaces and resources—so that each kid would have equal opportunities to get to those goals. We just said: “Get to the goal.” And we expect teachers to get there. However, if we really want that to happen, we have to determine the amount of money needed to run a system that gets the kids there. 

Florida is ranked 45 in the nation in terms of fiscal effort to fund schools. How can this be improved without major tax hikes?

Our research shows that Florida’s tax effort to fund schools has gone down over time. So, bringing it back to what it was 10 or 15 years ago would put more money in the system. So, part of it is about raising taxes but it is also about recognizing that the percentage of income paid in taxes by Florida residents has gone down over time. Florida does not have an income tax and uses its tourism industry to help services, but it could put more money in the system.

Florida also should target that money where the needs are greater. That’s up to the legislature and Governor. And unlike other states, the Florida courts have not been willing to step in.

Should the burden of funding schools fall mostly on states or should more fall on the federal level?

There is no federal constitutional right to elementary and secondary education and so it has fallen to states. Every state does have a phrase in its own constitution that refers to the state’s role in providing public schooling. Florida’s constitution says that it is “a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.” But there hasn’t been any significant pressure by the court on the legislature to do so.

It would be very helpful for the federal government to step up. There are states that are generally poor. In Mississippi, Alabama, and New Mexico, even if those state and local governments put up as much funding as they could, the states will fall behind.

The federal government should step up efforts and create a federal formula to help those states that do not have enough funds on their own. So, kids in Mississippi have the same opportunities as kids in Massachusetts.

Why are schools in extremely poor areas more affected by lack of funding?

When you have a higher concentration of child poverty or additional needs, the funding needs to be higher to get kids to the same outcomes. But in most states, the state does not make sure that there is enough money to get there.

Actually, in some states there is less money in areas that need more, making the gaps even bigger between what schools and children have and what they need. The money needed for kids to achieve desired outcomes in areas with low income, minority and non-English speaking students is much higher. But no state is really hitting this target and that comes through in our annual national reports.

What kind of new policies could be implemented that would entice more people to enter the profession of teaching?  

To a large extent, it’s about the overall level of funding and how that funding provides for hiring enough teachers and paying them well. Many reports, including our own show that a teacher at a certain age and at a certain experience level would be making more money if they had pursued another career path. The teacher to non-teacher pay rate in Florida has plummeted during the last decade. 

So, even though there has been rhetoric during the past couple of years about teachers getting raises and schools getting more funding, the best way to look at teacher pay and keeping teachers in the system is to compare teacher pay to other career trajectories teachers might choose to take. And that pay has been on a downhill slide.

It is also more than just pay. How teachers are treated as public servants matters. And recent efforts to restrict teacher speech and clamp down on discussions of certain topics can create an uncomfortable environment that may lead some teachers to say, “I’ve had enough.”

The emphasis on state tests and limiting classroom creativity also play a role.

Given all the challenges facing teachers, why should any young person pursue the profession?

I remind my students that all of this discussion about funding and other policy pressures goes in cycles and that there are huge variations in the schools that they may choose to teach in. My other more important message is that when I am talking about educational policy issues and reforms, I tell them that they have the ability to affect change.

We don’t have to accept it as it is. We can be part of the system and affect change within the system and maybe down the line run for state legislative office or take other leadership roles.  School funding is not a federal issue; it is what your state legislature does. Get knowledgeable about the system. Maybe a teacher will stay in their job and love it, or maybe they will take that experience and be that changemaker.