The Inequities of Education

“From both ends of the spectrum, public education spending isn’t working. Why do we spend too little or too much on others with neither yielding great success?”

By Zoe Hall

Our first public school was established in 1635 in Boston, Massachusetts. It offered free public education to (white) boys of all socioeconomic status in the area — although girls of every social class were still expected to attend private classes at home. This fact cannot be ignored for the sake of solely focusing on the monetary aspect of public education, as discrepancies, like gender or racial discrimination have in part lead to the problems of funding our public education budget as it is today.  So with this in mind, while it is true that in 1635 we provided ‘free, public education’ to a few young boys in Boston, Massachusetts, our education budget only needed to encompass a fraction of those who are eligible for education today. If the U.S. education system laid its foundations in systemic inequity, what sort of inequities has that lead to today?

There is no great equalizer of the public school system in the United States. Although the Department of Education, a federal cabinet agency, has existed since 1867 to collect data on and regulate our education system, the federal government plays a very minimal role in paying for students’ education. Most of the time the states play the most influential role in determining what standards to set for the public school curriculum. While all public schools in the United States must teach the common core curriculum, public schools are actually governed mostly by state laws: age requirements, homeschool regulations, and teacher standards all vary by state. For example, in the state of Colorado it is only necessary for a parent to write a letter of intention to the school district they reside in notifying the school they will be homeschooling their child. Although the child will be required to take a few state tests every now and then to be considered ‘advanced’ from grade to grade, they must merely make the 13th percentile in order to so. Meanwhile, in the state of New York, a parent must prepare and submit a curriculum and an update on their homeschooled students’ achievements four times a year in order to qualify for homeschool instruction. Nationally standardized tests, such as the ACT or SAT, are not mandated tests. Most of the time, the mandatory assessments for advancing from one grade to the next are only local or statewide.

Much like their role in monitoring the curriculum, the federal government does not contribute all that much per school to their budgets.  Even though the federal government spent $70.7 billion on education in 2016, for each individual school this does not amount to much of an investment. With such a tiny role in education spending, why is it the collective “U.S.” that has an education problem? On average, 45 percent of a public school’s budget comes from state taxes, 45 percent comes from local taxes, and 10 percent of the entire school budget is funded by the federal government. So what if it’s just certain states that have an education problem?


States’ Contribution Towards Schools

The variance between a state’s proportional funding for public education is about 22 percent, with West Virginia spending 10 percent of its budget on education and Vermont investing 32 percent annually. In 2013 the approximated 45 percent contribution that states make to our public education was $280 billion dollars. That is around 25 percent of total state tax revenue, and has pretty much remained a constant portion of the cumulative total of the 50 states plus D.C. tax budget in the past few years. State taxes come from property tax, sales tax and gross receipts, state licensing tax, and income taxes, along with any miscellaneous taxes that are in place per state. Most of those taxes depend and can vary greatly on a state’s population and their socioeconomic statuses, their lifetime spending habits, saving habits, income habits, and whether or not constituents rent or own their land. In 2015, West Virginia’s state tax revenue was estimated to be around $23.4 billion dollars. In Vermont, that estimate is $5.1 billion dollars. With a smaller budget, Vermont needs to spend a higher proportion of its tax revenue to catch up to the amount that West Virginia spends, which is $2.34 billion compared to Vermont’s $1.63 billion, or close to two thirds of the money that West Virginia contributes. However, with the difference between West Virginia’s school aged population, 277,949, compared to 89,246 kids in Vermont, that’s only $710 million dollars more in West Virginia to cover three times as many kids as there are in Vermont. This final number crunch turns out to be, on average, West Virginia spending $8,419 per child on education while Vermont spends $18,287. Spending gaps like this one could be the reason why we can rank our state’s schooling systems according to performance level with relative ease. This disparity could place the blame squarely on the states that don’t invest enough money into their students to adequately provide the same level of education that higher spending states do. However, a deeper look into spending variance within the states suggests something more. Inequities only grows deeper, and the pattern of quality investment only becomes more discriminatory.


The Closer to Home it Gets the Worse You’ll Feel

In 2014, Missouri was a pretty average state, ranked 19th on education performance and 27th among the states in education spending. In 2017, Missouri’s recommended state budget was $27.3 billion. 22 percent of that, or $6 billion went towards education. With 1.1 million school aged children, that provides about $5,532 per pupil this year. But this number actually varies quite a bit between school districts. Lindbergh School Districts, a suburb of St. Louis, invests via local taxes $7,947 per year per kid, and this makes up 90 percent of its $8,752 annual budget per student. The city of St. Louis actually spends more than its suburban counterpart: $8,834 locally and $9,826 per year per kid. Sullivan, a rural town in Missouri, contributes $3,322 annually per student via local taxes, which only makes up 44 percent of the annual budget per child, but the grand total invested in these students comes out to approximately $7,575, or less than even the amount of money provided per student in the suburbs by local tax initiatives alone.


Conclusion: Solving the Education Problem

To be fair, spending more money on average per student doesn’t always mean the students will achieve higher test scores, or be more likely to graduate, or go to better schools. There’s actually some evidence to suggest otherwise and it makes sense when considering that the budget funds of each individual school in our country look so different and come from different resources. Higher budgets can’t and don’t solve the education problem alone — there’s a lot more to the inequities of education that are related to but not necessarily solved by money. So then why do school budgets vary so greatly and have such different impacts on their students? One common thread of thought is that needier students require higher budgets to even the education playing field, but when the federal government bears less of the burden than the state or local ones, and these tinier entities get to set their own budgets, this redistribution of resources from the able to the needy remains pretty concentrated and divided district by district, and state by state, which could be why states like New York and Massachusetts spend way more money per kid than do states like Alabama or Mississippi. Left to their own devices, states and their wealthier districts have historically found themselves able to ignore the struggles entire school districts face where poor education is just one of many facets of the hardships plaguing them. This will only increase the inequities in our school system as time goes on. The federal government should not necessarily play a more enormous role in the funding of public education, but perhaps it is time for school districts to be less focused on the expansion of their own individual budgets and plan for more comprehensive reform for funding the school districts around them as well.



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  • Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. 2017. School and District Profiles. Available from Web.
  • Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. 2017. District Info. Available from Web.
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  • Lindbergh Schools. 14 Jun. 2016. 2016-2017 Lindbergh Schools Budget Adopted & Related Data. Retrieved from:
  • Dr. Adams, Kelvin. 11 Feb. 2016. Superintendent’s 2016-2017 Recommendations & Budget. Retrieved from:
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