Racial Achievement Gaps and Within-District Funding Inequity

Posted on January 18, 2010



I’ve written on this blog on a number of occasions, comments regarding the relative significance of within versus between district funding inequities. For example, I’ve explained (in response to an absurd claim by pundits from Education Trust) that southern states have not, in fact, substantively resolved between district funding disparities – leaving only district allocation policies to blame for persistent inequities.

A Center for American Progress report claims:

One of the most harmful manifestations of this is that local school district funding is allocated in a way that hurts poor and minority students. A study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that educational funding is being allocated on the basis of “staff allocations, program-specific formulae, squeaky-wheel politics, property wealth, and any number of other factors that have little to do with the needs of students.”1

The outcome of such practices is predictable: A further widening of the dangerous achievement gap that has become endemic in American schools today.

http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2008/06/pdf/comparability.pdf

Notably, some of the above concerns raised in the Fordham report are between, not within-district concerns (property wealth related disparities), but the CAP report focuses on within district disparities as the central issue.

I have a forthcoming article (which I will forward by request) which explains that the existing literature which claims that within-district disparities far outweigh between-district disparities is problematic at best, drawing premature if not entirely unfounded and overextended conclusions. This is not to deny the problem of within district disparities but rather to point out that between district disparities persist and must be addressed either simultaneously with or as a precursor to resolving within district disparities.

Many pundits who wish to shift focus entirely onto within district disparities, blaming districts instead of state funding policies, seem to base their arguments on the idea that within-district funding disparities are the reason for persistent racial achievement gaps. Their story goes… that over the decades through the 1990s, states fixed between district funding disparities and achievement gaps improved. Since that time however, improvement to achievement gaps has stagnated if not backslid (true), with pundits arguing that the persistent within district disparities are the cause (unlikely). That is, that individual school districts are now funding their non-poor, white schools well and depriving their poor minority schools. That districts are allowing their better teachers to transfer from the high poverty, black schools to their low poverty white schools. There are certainly cases where this is true (Cincinnati accomplishes this through its weighted student funding formula by weighting gifted children more than poor children).

As a broader policy concern, the above argument might make sense if, in fact, student populations across schools within districts varied widely but that student populations vary less between districts. That is, it might make sense to argue that between-school within-district funding disparities are causing racial achievement gaps if racial minorities and whites attended the same districts but not the same schools. But that’s not always, or often the case, especially in densely populated states and metropolitan areas which included many small school districts.

Allow me to use Connecticut – a state with among the largest racial achievement gaps – as an example. Here’s the racial composition (black enrollment share in red bars, Hispanic share in yellow bars) for Hartford area school districts (click to enlarge). Those flat bars in other districts are schools with few or no black or Hispanic children.

In Connecticut, like New Jersey or like the Chicago metro area, school districts tend to be either minority or white – not a balanced mix sorted across schools. Hartford, in this case, can only re-allocate resources across schools that are all approximately 99% poor, and either majority black (north end) or majority Hispanic (south end) schools (except for the magnet schools which serve relatively smaller portions of the district population).

New Britain, to the southwest of Hartford can allocate resources across predominantly Hispanic schools or other predominantly Hispanic schools.

Meanwhile, West Hartford, Simsbury, Avon, Newington, Wethersfield and others can allocate resources across white schools and other white schools (some in West Hartford having modest minority populations)

Here’s the New Haven area:

And the Bridgeport area:

So, at least in Connecticut, it would appear highly unlikely that within- district resource allocation across schools could be fueling their large achievement gaps. That’s because – for the most part – the minorities attend some districts and the whites attend other districts. That’s not to say there aren’t likely some pretty big within district funding disparities in these districts, but in some districts those disparities exist between blacks and Hispanics, or Hispanics and other Hispanics, blacks and other blacks and  in the other districts the disparities are between whites and other whites. For the most part, minority students attend minority districts and white students attend white districts in Connecticut. Patterns are similar in the Chicago metro area and in New Jersey.

Yes there are exceptions – racially integrated middle class inner-urban-fringe and suburban districts. But these exceptions do not account for the majority of minority or white students by any stretch of the imagination. And yes, in these exception districts, there are often very large achievement gaps even within schools. That is a separate and equally important (though smaller in magnitude) story.

It is an absurd stretch, however, to blame between-school within-district allocation policies for large achievement gaps in states like Connecticut, where minority students and white students attend different districts, much more so than different schools within the same districts.

See my previous post on between-district disparities in Connecticut here:

http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/08/19/random-thoughts-on-ct/

Here are the scatterplots of the school level free/reduced lunch rates and black and Hispanic concentrations for the above urban CT districts – elementary schools. Dots in red are schools within the district in question. Blue dots are schools in all other districts, including the other urban districts. Note that in Hartford and Bridgeport in particular, all elementary schools are high poverty and high minority concentration. New Haven is more diverse, but still less diverse than the statewide (between district) distribution.

CT School Demographics-Elementary

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