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  • Writer's pictureTrina Nguyen

Funding America's Public Education


In a country filled with wealth inequalities, the United States (US) public education system is an extension of one’s socioeconomic class which consequently disadvantages many marginalized students. Approximately 25 million US students come from low-income households - many of whom have experienced homelessness, food insecurity, lack of healthcare, and other financial obstacles that obstruct their learning. The underlying issue of marginalization becomes a long term issue with the underfunding of impoverished public schools. Not only are lower-class students further trapped in their respective economic standings, but their future away from these social and economic barriers remains bleak.

Having been raised in the US, I quickly learned the disparity between my college readiness knowledge compared to my peers whose K-12 education better prepared them for the rigors of higher education. After attending UCLA, I realized the level of impoverishment in my high school was that it was absurd seeing and hearing how bathrooms from other schools has automatic toilets. In studying statistics at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), I’ve witnessed the acceleration of my peers in our advanced calculus courses and their extensive knowledge in coding languages like Python, R, C++, and Java. By having prior experience and resources, my peers were not only excelling further in the major, but many were able to skip certain prerequisite courses that prolonged our stay in this expensive academic institution. The same applies to extracurriculars where my progress in tennis was severely hindered in high school as our team was underfunded and we relied on every dollar obtained through fundraisers. In the end, I did not pursue tennis in college. Though these instances stand trivial to the deeper systemic issues of poverty in education, they were still apparent enough to displace me in a competitive environment like a university. Unfortunately, those in a more disprivileged situation can not even consider postsecondary education as a future option.

Using the Inclusive Systemic Evaluation for Gender Equality, Environment, and Marginalized Voices (ISE4GEMs), an evaluation practice that analyzes the intersections of many systems, one can formulate a transformative plan for America’s public education. In addressing the complex webs of gender inequalities, sustainability, and marginalized voices within the US public school system, ISE4GEMs can help policymakers, activists, educators and other stakeholders approach educational reform to establish learning equity for our youth. With the pandemic hindering traditional learning and paving the way for an expanding market of edtech and virtual research, existing weaknesses in the education system may be extended online. And even if COVID-19 is no longer a considerable problem for the future, public schools are severely derailed from current budget cuts which will result in greater learning inequity.

Funding Systems for US Public K-12 Schools

Before diving deep into the social detriments of the system, it is important to outline its financial operations from a pre-covid standpoint. As a decentralized system based on the US Federal Constitution, most executive power in schools is determined by state and local laws with some regulations enforced by court decisions. Students usually follow the trajectory of attending primary, middle, and secondary school with the option to pursue postsecondary education if given the resources. But even before considering the university route, US public K-12 schools are still riddled with gross funding inequities despite its ideal goal of achieving equal educational opportunities for all students. In a “state school finance system,” there are a variety of policies that determine the distribution of state and county aid while also raising revenues from local property taxes. Formulas determining the allocation of aid must account for the cost for all schools to reach equal grounds. On average, K-12 public schools received 47% of their aid from the state, 45% from the local government and 7% from the federal government. States often utilize either multipliers/weights in their formula to distribute aid or separate categorically by programs, service, and student population.

In terms of academic performance, increasing bodies of academic research suggest that school finance reforms directly contribute to improved student outcomes. A 10% funding increase for 12 years correlates to 7.25% of higher pay and 3.67% reduction in adult poverty - all of which are more pronounced if applied to lower-income backgrounds. Many empirical studies have proven that increased investment per student in the form of quality teachers, supplies, and school facilities significantly heightened academic performance and even a 10% increase in teacher salary would reduce high school dropout rates by 3-4%. These claims are not new however scientific literature continues to advocate for a change in the US educational institutions especially in K-12 where learning is most vital.

One of the primary issues in funding is that local government/districts are the leading contributors in providing public schools with funds. Despite the 2016 increase in funding within 26 states and the 2018 funding boosts, budget cuts continue to lower the quality of educational services and some states remain below their 2008 pre-recession funding levels. Raising local revenues is greatly based on taxation (mostly on local property taxes) which is often lower in impoverished areas. In fact, any state budget cuts requires raising local revenues to compensate for funding loss which results in incremental inequity. Overall, state aid and federal revenue weres found to enhance fair allocation, staff numbers, and progressive spending across all states and even over time. The greatest disparity in equity lies in revenues obtained and dispersed by local governments.

The Most Vulnerable: Race and Poverty

Inequitable school funding serves a larger number of impoverished students and the current system continues to extort this cyclical pattern to further suppress growth in the marginalized population. The Supplemental Poverty Measure found a 9-10% increase in poverty rates for white children from 2000 to 2016 while rates remaining relatively the same for Black, Hispanic, and Asian children. For each group, poverty rates rise up to 31% for Black children, 26% for Hispanic, and around 10% for White and Asian children - all of which drastically affect their academic performance. According to the US Adequacy and Fairness of State School Finance System, schools serving students living in poverty are still vastly underfunded. The average spending per pupil is only about two-third of the required amount to reach the national average test scores (specifically about $13k when $20k is needed). These groups of students are in dire need of adequate staffing, a stable learning environment, and well-rounded curriculums.

In terms of reading achievements, white 4th & 8th-graders continue to score a higher average than blacks and Hispanic despite gaps closing from a 26-points difference in 1992 to 19 points in 2017. The same transfers to mathematics with the white-black achievement gap at grade 4 narrowing from 32 points in 1990 to 25 points in 2017. In terms of high school mathematics, approximately 45% of Asian students earn the highest calculus scores followed by white students with 18%, Hispanic students at 10%, and black students at 6%. Even preparations for college contain discrepancies with 72% of Asian students earning Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate credits, 40% for white students, 34% for Hispanics and 23% for black students. This comes to show that minority education is still fundamentally lower in quality and the disparity in learning remains drastic.

Largely Ignored is How Funding Affects Academic Environments

In ISE4GEMs, the analytical dimension of ‘Environments’ implies……..Impoverished living conditions usually subject students to stress and trauma, lack of proper nutrition, family incarceration/loss, and early exposure to abuse, drugs and violence. All of these circumstances hurt students’ prosocial behaviors in terms of school attendance and engagement that will greatly determine high school graduation and proper assimilation into society. Specifically, retention, suspension, and expulsion are explicitly a reflection of a student’s behavior but there are inherent environmental factors that led to the following statistics. Studies from 2013-14 displays black students with the highest out-of-school suspension at 13.7% than any other race. In 2016, 2.7% of black students retained in Kindergarten was higher than white children (1.7%) and the Hispanic status dropout rate in 2016 remained higher than black and white students.

The destructive cycle that students go through in poverty-strict areas and school districts inevitably marginalizes their socioeconomic welfare and it is distinctly elevated in the minority class. As minimal funding delays a students’ prospective careers and increases their exposure to antisocial behaviors, students grow up to be subjected to social resistance - especially discrimination - and are belittled by their disproportionate social, political, and economic gains in society.

Funding Education on the Basis of Gender

As aforementioned, teacher contribution to student learning is monumental with existing correlation between higher compensation and improved student output. Despite the fact that 76% of females make up the majority of US public school teachers, the Institute for Women Policy Research reported that female elementary and middle school teachers make 91% of their male counterparts. Notably, female public school educators also make less than comparable female workers/college graduates by 18.7% and males teachers suffer a greater wage gap at 26.8%. This jeopardizes the future employment of public educators as an average 5% of college students sought after a teaching profession, dropping the numbers from 16% to 10% in 2014. With a shortage in hiring teachers, quality education is at risk especially in lower-income areas.

In regards to student performance, girls and boys begin their academic journey on the same footing but in some instances, girls progress even further. Girls in their early childhood attain higher grade levels than boys (especially proficiency in reading) and boys are more likely to adopt antisocial behavior like delayed speech, stuttering, dyslexia, or mental retardation which coincides with their reading development. In their adolescent years, girls demonstrate greater noncognitive abilities including leadership qualities, attentiveness and organization in classrooms, and non-disruptive behavior which leads towards academic success. Numbers of female participation in extracurricular activities (except athletics), STEM classes, and college-preparatory courses also outmatch boys in their high school years. There are many sociological factors resulting in these observations including parental involvement, bio-cognitive abilities, and gender norms/stereotyping. Overall, female participation and success mirrors and even surpasses males.

Through the ISE4GEMs framework, the United States demonstrates an interesting case as financial support is not entirely based on gender for the receiver until after K-12 (which will not be discussed here). Most funding discrepancies stem from socioeconomic standing and race rather than gender and even if a girl’s academic success is an extension of other variables, it is no longer a defining component of US educational inequities. Moreso, it is both boys and girls in poorer schools and school districts that often face severe limitations in their educational opportunities.

Blog 2:


The months after March 2020 forced education to change to an unprecedented system. In response to the global “SARS-CoV-2” outbreak, schools in 138 countries were forced closed which shifted education to be entirely online as of March 18, 2020 - this affected roughly half of the student population totalling up to 862 million worldwide. Whereas in-person schools shoulder some social issues including food insecurities and homelessness as well as lack of access to healthcare, technology, and the Internet, the closures of schools now leave students vulnerable to these ongoing academic challenges. As a further in-depth analysis, the Inclusive Systemic Evaluation for Gender Equality, Environment, and Marginalized Voices (ISE4GEMs) framework will be deployed to further contextualize the new environments of US education.

The COVID-era: An Economic Crisis

The pandemic did not only pose a global health crisis but quarantine and closure of businesses consequently led to an economic recession that prompted major state budget deficits. This moment in history witnessed drastic fiscal policy changes. On June 30, Ohio’s Governor Mike DeWine released plans for a $300.4 million cut for funding the K-12 public schools and California also revealed $18 billion funding losses for K-12 schools and community colleges.

Even before the outbreak, many states still have not recovered from previous funding cuts from the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-8. It took 6 years of gradual re-building for schools to establish their pre-recession funding and even in 2015, 29 states still provided less funds per student compared to 2008. By mid-2012, job cuts - including teachers and school staff - totaled up to 351,000 and these numbers remained lower than 2008 despite progress made in later years.

In April of this year, the pandemic left 469,000 K-12 workers (half being teachers, tutors and teaching assistance) unemployed, according to the Economic Policy Institute. It may result in a $1 trillion deficit by 2021 for state and local government. As an update in June, there are around 0.7 million teaching jobs less which is 8.3% lower than the numbers in February 2020.

Changes in Learning Environments and Digital Inequalities

Environments, under the ISE4GEM framework do not only comprise of nature and its many ecological systems. In this context, digital educational environments have led staff and students to new hurdles in their academic journeys. As the school and home environments were abruptly combined, resource allocation became a greater obstacle in distant learning especially in impoverished areas. In fact, worldwide isolation has prompted the use of technology to be a necessity in education which paves the way for digital inequalities. Inability to access relevant information about COVID-19 and professional advice released from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the World Health Organization (WHO) already leaves the low-income population vulnerable.

During adjustment phases, teachers often sacrifice learning materials - of which the RAND Corporation’s American Educator Panels (AEP) reported that only 12-14% of teachers covered all or nearly all of the course’s content as they would in a regular school setting. In addition, the numbers of principals from higher poverty areas doubled from their counterparts when reporting their school’s technological needs. Between April and May of 2020, half of the teachers announced that they received no adequate guidance to facilitate online learning especially for disabled and homeless students. It is in this case that delivering proper academic content obstructs the initial passage for learning. The other environment in critical need of help is within the home.

Economically disadvantaged homes - especially those residing in impoverished districts - are limited in quality electronics and Internet connection, autonomy of use, networks with other users, and even just practical experience in digital literacy. It is an emerging form of social exclusion especially since video communication platforms like Zoom and Google Meets now dictate academic and social interactions. This coupled with rising unemployment leaves low-income households severely constrained.

Continuing from RAND Corporation’s American Educator Panels (AEP)’s survey, only 9% of teachers in higher poverty schools found their students to fully complete the curricula as opposed to the estimated 25% from their counterparts. According to McKinsey and Company, 60% of low-income, black, and Hisptanic students log online on a daily basis compared to the 90% of students in higher-income environments - which equate directly to learning loss. It is predicted that these marginalized groups of students will fall behind for months or even up to a year as opposed to their higher class peers, widening the achievement gaps by 20%. Here, both ends of the education spectrum encounter great obstacles in providing and acquiring proper education and it is significantly worse in districts with little funding.

A Call to Action

With the rise of ed-tech and information technology, the world is shifting towards a new revolution of educational technology. Masses of data are collected to further spark the capitalist ventures into e-learning and all its potential markets. Although this is a positive development to society, it also greatly discriminates against students who cannot fathom the existence of advanced technology while the market expands and uplifts for those who have access to such digital wonders.

While many institutes have taken action and sought help from parents, neighboring schools, colleges, youth groups, and more, the fundamental issue is in the lack of funding from the federal government. The adoption of online learning was a quick fix to the pandemic but with the school year starting in fall of 2020, governments, both local and federal, should rethink their methods in facilitating online education.

In lessening the inequities accelerated in Covid times, there is a need to establish new relational structures that intertwine technological development with proper e-learning execution. The primary focus is in federal funding because in any global crisis, preserving youth learning should be one of the priorities of the executive power; relying on local funds only exacerbates existing inequities. Any form of funding should be further invested in technology that optimizes inclusive e-learning; this includes check-out systems for laptops, mobile hotspots/wifi box, and courses teaching tech usage - all of which are efforts to empower lower-income students. Curriculums should be redirected from simply projecting information over Zoom and online submissions to virtual collaborative/networking spaces, online research forums, and accelerative personal projects - to promote holistic human growth.

Under the ISE4GEMs framework, all educational effort should expand the vast world of ed-tech to every system and sector of society. Technology should be employed to facilitate inclusive e-learning and capture the educational desires of the marginalized population. While current socioeconomic holes are heightened by online education, ed-tech can fill in the gaps of an old institution like the US public education system if the entire structure of education is changed accordingly. The pandemic has heightened social issues within traditional education but it can also be an opportunity to correct those holes.

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