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Closing the School Funding Gap

School leaders are developing new mechanisms

By Christine Moses

For many American schoolchildren, learning is happening in school environments that are funded below 2008 pre-recession levels. That is according to a recent study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which found 35 states are funding public education below 2008 levels with several making significant cuts in state-wide funding. Districts rely on state funds, on average, for 47% of their revenues, with federal sources providing nine percent of funding, and local sources providing approximately 45 percent of revenue. American schools are asked to educate more students — up 1.1 million between 2008 and 2016 — with 220,000 fewer education jobs.

In addition, most Americans do not have a clear idea about how much money it takes to educate public school students. There are 46 million students in public schools and the average per pupil cost is $11,000. Only about 15 percent of respondents to an EdChoice poll knew the number.

It is in this environment, of shrinking budgets and a lack of understanding of school funding mechanisms, that schools are looking to alternative ways of financing and providing their basic and extracurricular programs.

Potential Solutions

In their 1995 work, Catherine Clark and Laurence Toenjes of the Texas Center for Educational Research explored how school-funding allocations could be used more efficiently. They found that inputs such as the wholesale adoptions of reading curricula across a district that is imposed on schools is not necessarily the most effective way to address school-specific issues. When programs and interventions are imposed by central office, it is difficult for individual schools to have the resources to address school site issues. The inputs and the formulas that allocate those inputs are determining the outputs. Not the other way around.

In response, schools, districts, and states are looking to empower schools to meet the local, specific needs of students and parents. From community-based solutions to reformulating the formulas, to in-school advertising, schools and districts are looking to innovative ways to close the funding gaps that continue to underlie the achievement gaps.

Partnerships in Schools

The community school trend is taking hold in Central Texas. The Austin Independent School District (AISD) has implemented a pilot project at two schools and is exploring partnerships with an array of community organizations to provide community connections throughout the school community. Public and private partners provide integrated services including social services, academics, and community engagement which all lead to better outcomes – improving family health, stronger communities, and increased student achievement. The City of Austin has funded a parent support specialist in every Title I school and Family Resource Center. Their job is to respond to local needs by providing wrap-around services, mental health services, and medical services.

According to a recent press release, AISD Superintendent Paul Cruz is the head cheerleader for the effort. “I’ve seen the community schools approach work at Reagan High School and Webb Middle School. From near closure in 2007, Reagan and Webb have experienced dramatic academic turnarounds.”

This collaborative, which includes Austin Voices and Education Austin, helps students succeed with high-quality instruction, family and community engagement, and supports. All have been a crucial part to the turnaround at the two previously failing schools – Webb Middle Scholl and Reagan Early College High School.

Keys to the Austin Community Schools success include channeling targeted partnerships to support the needs of the schools; coordinated social supports for families and students; college, career, and service focus areas; engaging high-quality academics with enrichments activities, expanded learning, strong early childhood programs, and a welcoming community hub for all.

Reformulating Formulas

Educators have explored weighted student funding in the Netherlands and funding districts based upon the proportion of foster children, low-income students, and English-language learners in California.

For Dutch schools, money follows students, and the amount depends upon the type of students they are; Dutch students with parents that have low education and immigrant students from non-Western countries are the recipients of higher levels of funding support. The funding formal has provided schools with up to 60 percent more teachers and supporter staff per student based on the proportion of weighted students attending those schools.

In 2014, the California Board of Education directed new funding guidelines in order to revamp school spending, so it targets the students with the greatest needs. Under the new formula, all districts received a base-funding amount, and the additional resources known as concentration grants, are targeted to specific districts based on demographic needs. The concentration grants, as they are called, increase each year through 2021.

Advertising and Schools

In-school advertising from food and beverage companies represents about 8 percent of the youth-focused spending, which totaled $149 million in 2009. More than 90 percent of the in-school spending was from brands representing carbonated beverages. Advertising has been a source of review for athletic teams, marching bands, and other extracurricular activities for years, but traditionally schools didn’t have much say-so in the companies or products that were to be advertised. That situation is changing.

Districts are now demanding more control over the corporate partners who help fund their schools. Education Funding Partners (EFP), a certified B Corp in Chicago, has created a way to give educators the power to choose the brands and messages students and parents see on their websites, in their schools, and on the playing fields. Because the dollars are not restricted, school or district leaders can target special programs, increase participation in extracurricular activities, or use the funds to support direct student services. School and district administrators have control over the messaging or the type of integrated partnership they want to have with their selected brands.

“The time has never been more appropriate to expand public/private partnerships to support our students and schools,” said EFP CEO Tom Weeks. “Companies can ‘do well by doing good’ with a smart business investment that ultimately supports student achievement.”

In Hutto, Texas, school buses can be seen with ads from Reliant Plumbing and their website partners include The YMCA and Beau’s Specialty Meats & Deli. Stadium event sponsorships can include logo placement and video commercials on the new digital scoreboard called the Hippotron. Packages range in price from $1,250 to $6,000 per year. Approximately 50,000 patrons attend Hutto Hippo Stadium events. For this community, branded buses, scoreboards, and websites are part of the funding mix that supports academic and athletic programs.


Ultimately, it is up to local school leaders to develop and use funding mechanisms that are responsible to their stakeholders, namely students and parents, while engaging the community (corporate, legislative, and nonprofit) to support the efforts of educators. Together, everyone in the community can fill the funding gaps to bridge the achievement gaps.

Further Reading
  1. Forbes –  “Americans Are Clueless About Education Spending,”
  2. Resource – Community Schools
  3. Resource – Education Funding
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