Here's One (Obvious) Way to Tackle Deep K-12 Inequities: More Money

If you hang around K-12 philanthropy enough these days, you can be forgiven if you don't think much about the deep funding inequities rife in America's public education system. After all, many of the top K-12 reform funders rarely talk about those inequities, much less try to do anything about them. Instead, they tend to focus on advancing choice and accountability. Some dismiss the idea that greater resources are needed to improve education for disadvantaged kids. 

But funding inequities are a stark fact of life in America's schools, with K-12 financing closely linked to property tax rolls. While there are examples of urban school districts that spend heavily per student with little to show for such spending, this isn't the norm nationally. According to a 2015 study by Education Trust, "the highest poverty school districts receive about 10 percent less per student in state and local funding than the lowest poverty districts" and those districts "serving the most students of color nationwide receive roughly 15 percent less per student in state and local funding than those serving the fewest."

In other words, K-12 funding is exactly backward in America. The kids who need the most help get the least. 

Not mentioned in that study is how private giving further exacerbates this upside situation, with parents and local foundations in affluent communities now contributing as much as several billion dollars a year to boost schools that are already among the best-funded in the nation. Indeed, while ed reformers like to dismiss the role that more money might play in improving schools, the behavior of PTA groups nationwide underscores what every parent knows: More money does matter. It can pay for teaching assistants, music classes, library books, computers—the list goes on and on. (Check out if want to see a gazillion more examples.) 

Funding inequities often track with racial segregation in schools, which in turn tend to reflect patterns of residential segregation—another issue that few education funders talk about or address, as we've often reported. Broader issues of power and voice also affect the ability of historically marginalized low-income communities to improve educational opportunities for their kids. 

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Battle Creek, Michigan, is an example of these challenges. Preliminary findings from an NYU study released earlier this year—funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation,which is headquartered in the city—found that "structural bias and racial, socioeconomic and residential segregation create unequal access to opportunities in Battle Creek, produce inequitable educational outcomes, and limit some students’ pursuit of career and college readiness in the region."

To level this playing field, Kellogg stepped forward last week with a $51 million grant to Battle Creek Public Schools (BCPS) over five years. While we see that kind of money flowing all the time to higher education institutions, it's rare to see a gift of this size to a single public school district. Measured per student, it's more than Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million gift to improve Newark's schools in 2010.

Among other things, this historic move is a statement of who the Kellogg Foundation is and what it believes. It's a progressive funder deeply committed to improving opportunity for poor children of color. Race and equity issues occupy a central place in its thinking about education. While Kellogg has often backed charter schools, it doesn't see choice and accountability strategies as adequate responses to educational inequities that reflect entrenched patterns of economic exclusion and structural racism. 

At the same time, as we often point out, Kellogg backs lots of promising evidence-based approaches to helping kids learn and succeed. Its education grantmaking offers frequent reminders that there are plenty of ways to improve student outcomes without torching existing school systems. 

The plan for spending $51 million in Battle Creek schools underscores this. The money, which will go to help all kids in all grades in BCPS, stresses a number of approaches that are attracting wide attention right now. These include investing more to recruit, train and retain teachers; bolstering pre-kindergarten and early literacy opportunities; beefing up STEM learning; and strengthening pathways to college starting as early as middle school. 

Each of these strategies can help kids succeed, but they all cost money. And now, thanks to the Kellogg Foundation, BCPS will have the extra resources that are needed to help disadvantaged students.

If you're not paying close attention, K-12 education philanthropy can look monolithic, with reform funders like Walton, Gates and Broad dominating the scene. In fact, there's enormous diversity in funding strategies, and even some of those reform funders pull a wider array of levers to make change than people might realize.

Such diversity is a good thing. Despite the polarization of the K-12 debate, improving schools rarely boils down to either/or choices. A range of strategies is needed to improve schools—including, often, the most obvious one of all: investing more in these institutions.