School finance reforms prove valuable for improving student achievement

Spoiler alert: financial investments in K-12 education matter greatly when it comes to ensuring equitable access and opportunities for students and improving academic achievement.

A recent Learning Policy Institute webinar “Money Matters: Evidence Supporting Greater Investment in Public Education” covered the history of school finance reforms in the U.S. and research on how states that have passed reforms are benefitting.

Inequitable funding for schools is an issue around the country that results in students from underserved communities often lacking access to high-quality preschool programs, well-prepared teachers, safe and healthy facilities, and curriculum and materials that encourage deep thinking.

“This conversation is taking place at a crucial moment for education in the United States and for the world,” said Amit Sevak, president of the Education Law Center, which co-hosted the event. “We face two major crises I’d like to raise today. One is a crisis of equity. We’re reckoning with historic injustices even as social divisions even. The other is a crisis of democracy. People are finding it harder than ever to engage in meaningful debate and to distinguish truth from propaganda. A major part of the solution to each of these crises will be access to quality educational opportunities at scale.”

Research has shown that increasing spending also increases test scores, attainment and ultimately student outcomes and earnings, Sevak said.

With federal COVID-19 relief dollars still in play and some states reporting budget surpluses, “I think we can all agree that one of the best places to spend that money would be exactly here, in preK-12,” Sevak said. “That is especially true if you take care to target the neediest school districts.”

California’s funding formula

“Across the country about 90 percent of public school spending is provided through the blend of state and local dollars. States really play a big role in both the adequacy and the progressivity of that funding formula that provides the foundational building blocks upon which resource equity is built,” said Rucker Johnson, chancellor’s professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at University of California, Berkeley and faculty research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. “While there are a lot of concerns that are expressed about short-run deficits, I would argue that more attention needs to be paid to the deficits of opportunity, particularly for children from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds.”

California attempts to address socioeconomic disparities through the Local Control Funding Formula, which Johnson reviewed. Launched in 2013 with a goal of reducing academic achievement gaps between children from socio-economically disadvantaged families and their more advantaged counterparts, the state-level commitment included an $18 billion increase in support distributed incrementally over eight years (2013–2020).

Knowing the funding wasn’t short-term allowed local educational agencies to plan long-term programs. The funding came with minimal restrictions on how LEAs could use it and was based on student-level disadvantage rather than a district’s property wealth, Johnson explained.

Some strategies that proved effective for students and educators include reducing class sizes and increasing teacher salaries, which led to lower teacher turnover. Professional development for educators and supporting efforts to bring on more guidance counselors and health service professionals also proved positive.

The bump in spending from LCFF has translated to increased student achievement on standardized tests and increased graduation rates for children from low-income families. Johnson also noted significant reductions in student behavioral problems among other benefits.

Other reform efforts

Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute and board president of the California State Board of Education, talked about how to achieve greater equity in schools. At the base is supports for children (such as social-emotional and educational supports) followed by having equitable school resources, well-prepared and well-supported educators and 21st-century curriculum and assessments —resulting in innovative and effective schools.

Factors that research proves boost achievement include community schools; high-quality preschool; having prepared, experienced, board-certified teachers; social-emotional supports and use of restorative approaches; and, for Black students, having a Black teacher for at least one year.

Adopting a whole child approach is increasingly common in California schools and around the nation, meaning students’ social-emotional, mental and physical health needs are also considered in addition to their academic needs.

Darling-Hammond also detailed the reforms and practices that top-scoring National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) states including Massachusetts, New Jersey and Connecticut have implemented.

Actions that raised students’ average NAEP scores and substantially closed achievement gaps include having mentoring and performance assessments for beginning teachers, raising standards for teacher credentialing, emphasizing principals’ ability to support instruction, developing standards and assessments that focused on student performance and problem solving, investing in preschool and health care for children, investments in bilingual education and more.

Watch the webinar here.