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Funding Schools Based on Need

Do school districts serving the neediest students deserve extra dollars? The answer seems so apparent. But in fact there is great disagreement, even though about 20 states presently provide additional funding accordingly.

California serves as an example. Poor districts there already receive about 20 percent more in state and federal dollars than affluent districts. Although this has caused resentment in the past, it is nothing compared to what is now being expressed under Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed new funding formula ("Brown's school funding plan draws mixed reactions," Los Angeles Times, Feb. 25). Brown wants to give all districts a base grant, and then add an additional 35 percent of that for each low-income, foster-care, or English-language-learning student. If these students constitute more than half of a district's enrollment, he proposes adding another 35 percent.

You'd think that this plan would be viewed as fair. After all, poor students bring huge deficits in socialization, motivation and intellectual development to school through no fault of their own. Trying to meet their needs requires greater expenditures than those for students from advantaged backgrounds. But affluent districts argue that their students would be shortchanged. They point to expensive Advanced Placement classes. To put the matter in more concrete terms, the latter districts would get $8,429 per student annually compared with $11,656 per student annually for the former.

In a perfect world, there would not be dramatic differences in the backgrounds of students. Finland, for example, does not have to deal with the issue because socioeconomic factors are far more uniform than in the U.S. That's not surprising because the U.S. has the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world, according to Unicef. The latest census found that one in five children is living in poverty. The implications for public schools cannot be denied.

But I think it's important to keep in mind that even if additional funding is provided to schools serving these students, there is no assurance of the outcomes we want to see. Remediation is not as effective as early intervention. About 50 percent of the difference in lifetime earnings is determined by age 18 ("The Case for Investing in Disadvantaged Young Children"). Moreover, so much of a student's performance is determined by out-of-school factors at any age. In short, it's important to have realistic expectations.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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