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School Funding Shifts to Help ELLs, Disadvantaged Students

The basic approach to school funding in the United States has remained largely the same for generations. But over time, states have made a decisive shift to devote more resources to help specific populations, particularly English-language learners and economically disadvantaged and academically struggling students.

That's one of the main findings of a study of school finance in the United States that examines the structure of school funding from the country's founding through present day.

The study, authored by Deborah Verstegen of the University of Nevada, Reno, and published recently in Education Policy Analysis Archives, examines the school finance system in all 50 states.

School funding in the United States, as most Ed Week readers probably know, is based largely on a combination of state and local funding. (The federal has traditionally chipped in about 10 percent, and has a number of programs devoted to specific populations, such as disadvantaged youth through Title 1.)

The vast majority of states use some variation of a "foundation" funding system, in which the state sets a guaranteed per-pupil or per-teacher amount. Local governments typically contribute to schools through what they raise in property taxes, and the state contributes its own share. In some cases, the state makes up some of the differences in what local governments are able to raise on their own, and the locals in some cases have the right to raise more through local taxes to the benefit of their schools.

Many states today devote extra resources to specific populations, Verstegen explains. Thirty-four states provide extra support for children "at risk of failing or dropping out of school," she writes, and 37 provide extra money for teaching English-language learners.

Not surprisingly, given the increased emphasis on standards and tests over the past few decades, states have channeled more money to helping students who are struggling academically, Verstegen writes.

Education history buffs will probably find a lot to interest them in the study. One of the earliest advocates for devoting tax dollars to support public schools was none other than Thomas Jefferson, the author notes. Universal public elementary and secondary education was desirable, Jefferson wrote, because:

"[W]orth and genius would thus have been sought out from every condition of life, and completely prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts."

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