By Howie Knoff, Ph.D., President of Project ACHIEVE Educational Solutions
In 2024, we’ll reach the 70th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. As we all know, this unanimous Supreme Court decision determined that state laws that established racially segregated public schools were unconstitutional, even if the segregated schools were otherwise equal in quality. More specifically, the Court decided that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and, thus, that they violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment.
Critically, the Supreme Court decision did not specify how states were to eliminate racial segregation in schools, and it ordered states to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” Thus, while Brown was a landmark civil rights decision, many districts and schools have “waxed and waned” from segregation to integration to re-segregation during the following 65 years.
The “bottom line” is that the current state of educational equity is not good. While segregated educational facilities were deemed by the Supreme Court to be inherently unequal, the quality of instruction and the availability of resources and money in today’s schools—for many students from poverty and students of color—is unequal.
This article discusses (a) the presence and impact of inequitable school funding—which occurs especially in schools serving large numbers of students from poverty; (b) the reciprocal impact of poverty on students’ kindergarten through high school achievement; and (c) the cyclical pattern whereby unfunded schools and under-served students undermine the educational quality for other students, thus triggering additional student challenges that these schools don’t have the funds to address.
Two solutions also will be suggested: Core-Plus School Funding at the federal, state, and district levels, and the Get-Go Process for schools to help them determine how to maximize the impact of their existing funds to best serve students across a multi-tiered system of supports.
Schools are Inequitably Funded Across the U.S.
There are many sources of financial inequity that directly impact schools and, especially, those serving high numbers of students living in poverty. Some of these inequities originate with the funding formulas at the federal and state levels that, directly or indirectly, provide money to districts. Other inequities occur at the district level relative to the funds generated from available local property taxes, or the ability of parents to donate financial support for school activities.
These funding inequities were recently validated and quantified in two reports, The Adequacy and Fairness of State School Finance Systems (Baker, DiCarlo, & Weber, 2019), and 23 Billion (February, 2019), a report from EdBuild, a non-profit organization that analyzes school funding issues.
The first Report was based on data from the 2015-2106 school year. Using research, state and local spending patterns, and student test scores, the authors concluded that—while states are spending enough money for middle class and wealthier students to meet states’ academic standards, they’re spending less on students living in poverty.
Critically, the Report notes that these latter students require more funding, because they require more-qualified teachers, stable learning environments, and wrap-around multi-tiered services. And yet, we know that schools with high numbers of students living in poverty typically are staffed by less experienced teachers who have more instructional skill gaps, and who resign from the school more often and after fewer years in-rank.
From a funding perspective, the Report stated that
States historically have attempted to even out funding disparities between districts by providing more money to those with low property value and, inevitably, poorer students. But states are falling short in those efforts. While states currently spend on average around $13,000 on high-poverty school districts, states, they should be spending more than $20,000 on those districts.
The second EdBuild Report went further in quantifying inequities in school funding by also using data from the 2015-2016 school year. It investigated, across the country, the annual state-by-state per pupil expenditures in predominantly white versus non-white districts, and in poor white versus poor non-white districts. The Report noted that approximately 12.8 million of our nation’s students experience significant funding gaps because they are enrolled in “racially concentrated” districts where 75% of the students are non-white.
More specifically, the Report stated that racially concentrated non-white districts receive, on average, only $11,682 of funding per student each year, while racially concentrated white districts receive $13,908 per student each year. As 27% of our nation’s students live in racially concentrated non-white districts, and 26% of our nation’s students live in racially concentrated white districts, this translates to a $23 billion funding gap per year that favors white over non-white districts. . . even though approximately the same number of students are involved.
This racial divide is even more concerning when the high-poverty rates of these districts are considered. Here, it is critical to note that 20% of our nation’s students are enrolled in high-poverty non-white districts, but only 5% of our nation’s students live in high-poverty white districts.
Given this distinction, the funding gap above takes on an additional context. Specifically, high-poverty white school districts receive about $150 less per student than the national average. But these district still receive nearly $1,500 more than high-poverty non-white school districts.
Both of these reports validate the existence of significant funding gaps for the schools attended by students living in poverty and, especially, non-white students living in poverty. These funding gaps are devastating because, as shown below, students living in poverty come to school with more academic and social, emotional, or behavioral service needs than schools with higher income students.
Correlating Poverty with Student Achievement
The correlation between health, mental health, academic, and social, emotional, and behavioral challenges and students living in poverty has long been established (Buck & Deutsch, 2014; Hughes & Tucker, 2018). Recently, this correlational effect has included the triangulation of poverty, stress, and trauma—including the impact of hunger and poor nutrition, parental incarceration and loss, abuse and neglect, and the exposure to violence and drugs. At a functional level, all of these factors can negatively affect students’ school attendance and expectations, classroom engagement and motivation, academic readiness and proficiency, emotional self-control and prosocial interactions and, ultimately, high school graduation and readiness for the workforce. Critically, these are corollary, not causal, effects, and they can be prevented or moderated with the right services and supports.
At the same time, many high-poverty schools are constantly dealing with high numbers of (a) truant and chronically-absent students; (b) students with significant, multi-year academic skill gaps; and (c) students who are physical or school safety threats, or who have mental health needs that transcend the school’s available services. These students then impact the staff’s instructional effectiveness and efficiency, the school’s climate and culture, and the educational process and its outcomes.
These correlations are clearly seen when analyzing where schools are rated on their respective state and federal department of education report cards each year. In general, the data consistently show that high-poverty schools tend to be the lowest rated schools in most individual states—a status that many superintendents consider “a crisis.”
A State Example
Arkansas annually rates its schools—from “A” to “F”—on a composite of outcome indicators that include students’ academic proficiency and learning growth (including for English Second-Language students); high school AP course enrollment, ACT scoring and graduation; and student attendance and community service learning credits earned.
According to the 2017-2018 academic school year data, published in October, 2018 by the Arkansas Department of Education, 152 schools in the state received a school rating of A, 313 schools received a B, 380 schools received a C, 145 schools received a D, and 44 schools received an F.
Relative to race and school poverty, there were no A-rated and only three B-rated Arkansas schools that enrolled over 50% black or low-income students. Moreover, the student populations in the A-rated schools averaged 19% minority and 77% white students. Conversely, the student populations in the F-rated schools averaged 87% minority and 12% white students.
As is evident in the figure below, race and poverty appear to be strongly correlated to a school’s Arkansas state department of education school rating status. But, as suggested above, in between the race and poverty is the funding inequity—the funds that relate to school resources, staff expertise and longevity, and the multi-tiered resources needed by students with higher academic and social, emotional, or behavioral needs.
At the National Level
Also in October 2018, Hegedus reported national data on the relationship between poverty and students’ academic performance. Using data collected by the assessment company NWEA, the study analyzed the relationship between student achievement and growth and school-level poverty in about 1,500 U.S. schools randomly selected from over 9,500 schools that used NWEA’s MAP Growth assessment tool. This was done by correlating Fall 2015 and Spring 2016 MAP Growth data in reading with the percentage of students receiving a Free Lunch across the participating schools.
The results revealed a strong negative relationship between each school’s median MAP student reading scores and its school poverty status (see the figure below). That is, students’ MAP reading scores were lower when the school had higher levels of student poverty. This was a strong effect as about 50% of a school’s reading achievement was accounted for by the percentage of students eligible for a Free Lunch.
This strong negative relationship between poverty and achievement was similarly evident when the schools with the highest versus lowest Spring 2016 MAP Growth reading scores were compared. When analyzing the top and bottom 5% of these schools, the data showed that the top 5% MAP-scoring schools enrolled a significantly wealthier population of students, while the bottom 5% MAP-scoring schools enrolled significantly more Free Lunch (i.e., living in poverty) students (see the second figure below).
Once again, all of the information presented here supports the conclusion that high-poverty schools have some of the most academically-challenging students in our country. If these schools had more (or equitable) financial resources, they would have a higher probability of effectively addressing their respective students’ challenges. But the financial inequities discussed often allow initial academic gaps and problems to progressively magnify as students move from grade-to-grade. . . to the point where long-term solutions are replaced by short-term survival.
Solutions to Inequitable School Funding
A report (Public Impact, 2018), Closing achievement gaps in diverse and low-poverty schools: An action guide for district leaders, outlined some additional school gaps that are related to funding inequities. These included: unequal access to excellent teachers, teacher bias and low expectations, the disproportionate number of white teachers and the related potential for cultural insensitivity and/or bias, fewer referrals of students of color and/or poverty to gifted and talented programs, rigid tracking and less access to advanced secondary courses and other academic opportunities, higher levels of disproportionate office discipline referrals and suspensions, and the disproportionate presence of learning challenges with less access to quality remedial or intervention services.
The Report went on to recommend a number of district-level solutions to address the existing educational funding gaps. Here, the Report encouraged district leaders to use a package of research-based strategies centered on three complementary goals:
Outstanding learning for all
- Guaranteeing excellent teachers and principals, including redesigning schools to enable the district’s excellent teachers and principals to reach all students, not just a fraction.
- Ensuring access to high-standards materials and learning opportunities.
- Using teaching methods and school practices that work, including screening for and addressing learning differences, personalizing instruction, and responding to trauma.
Secure and healthy learners
- Meeting basic needs, including meals and reducing school transitions from housing changes.
- Fostering wellness and joy via school-based health clinics, social-emotional learning, and other building blocks of academic success, and addressing mental health challenges.
- Supporting families by understanding and responding to individual and collective needs.
Culture of equity
- Addressing key equity challenges in schools, including teachers matching their racial and other identities, access to advanced opportunities, culturally relevant assignments, and research-based, non-discriminatory disciplinary policies.
- Fostering community accountability via shared leadership that truly empowers.
- Equipping individuals to act by developing leadership and addressing implicit bias via consistent, ongoing anti-bias training. If district leaders and their communities pursue these approaches, they can help equip low-income students and students of color to close gaps and succeed in large numbers.
While these recommendations are sound, they are largely focused on whole-system or whole-school reparations. They do not address the multi-tiered strategic and intensive academic and/or behavioral services, supports, strategies, and interventions needed by students who are not fully or appropriately served due to the documented inequitable funding patterns.
Core-Plus Funding occurs when, for example, every district in a state or every school in a district receives, each year, the core funding that it needs to run a successful multi-tiered instruction and support program for all of its students. The “plus funding” are the additional dollars that are given to districts or schools to support the services, supports, programs, and interventions needed by at-risk, underachieving, unresponsive, unsuccessful, and failing students.
This “plus funding” is allocated (a) for the service needs of existing students; (b) to compensate for needs of students (e.g., from high-poverty schools) that have resulted because “plus funding” was absent in the past; and (c) to students who are at-risk, or are showing “early warning” signs, of future, potentially significant needs.
As suggested immediately above, to maximize its outcomes, Core-Plus Funding must occur from the federal to state to district to school levels. But a prerequisite to all of this, naturally, is the availability of the adequate Core Funding that successfully supports the instructional, programmatic, resource, and related service needs for all of the students in every school.
There are, however, no national studies identifying what states or school districts employ Core-Plus Funding processes (or the equivalent), which funding formulae work best, and whether Core-Plus Funding was producing positive student outcomes. An initial attempt was reported in Education Week (Burnette, 2018). This article identified Wyoming as a state that was addressing both core and equity-based funding in an effective way, and Alaska as the only state that, in 2015, spent more money in its poverty-stricken districts than in its wealthier districts.
More locally, equity-based funding was identified (Dobard, 2019) as one of ten reasons for the educational renaissance in the New Orleans. There, schools with more English second-language learners, students who are over-aged for their grade, and students with disabilities receive funding that is proportional to the services that they require.
The “Get-Go” Process
While we are, nationally, still in our infancy relative to knowing the best approaches to Core-Plus Funding, schools still need to determine annually which students will be successful—academically and socially, emotionally, and behaviorally—with “Core” funding, and which students require “Core-Plus” funding due to difficulties in these areas. When this information is known during the budgeting process, then districts can distribute funds, resources, and personnel accordingly and equitably for all of its schools. Even if there are insufficient Core-Plus funds to cover all needs, the district can still adapt and apply a Core-Plus budgeting “philosophy” to meet the greatest number of student and school needs possible.
To guide this process, we have developed, field-tested, and implemented the “Get-Go” Process across the country over the past 20 years (Knoff, 2018a, 2018b). This process occurs every April or May, and it involves collecting and evaluating data and information on every student in a school based on their current-year performance and accomplishments. These data are typically available, imported to, and warehoused in the school’s data management/student information system (e.g., Skyward, Illuminate, PowerSchool, Infinite Campus). They then are compiled, organized, and discussed in meetings that include administrators, the students’ current grade-level teachers, and other intervention support and related services staff. Critically, most of these data are already collected and reported to the district and state department of education each year to create each school’s Report Card as required by the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. They include each student’s:
- Demographic Background and Information
- Attendance and Medical/Speech/OT/PT Status and Information
- Disability and ELL Status
- Academic Status and Progress (including all formative and summative testing)
- Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Status (including office discipline referrals, suspensions/expulsions, and counseling)
- Student Assistance Team (SAT) and Multi-Tiered Intervention Status and Progress
- Family and Residential Status and Notable Events
- Community-based Services Status and Needs
- Get-Go Status and Specific Areas of Concern (Academic, Behavioral, Medical, Attendance, Other)
The primary goal of the Get-Go Process is to determine (in April or May) the current functional status and school-year progress of every student in a school, and to identify which students need what multi-tiered services, supports, or interventions so that they are available and fully operational on the first day of the new school year and on all days thereafter.
More broadly, the goals of the Get-Go Process are to:
- Complete a final, summative evaluation of the academic, and social, emotional, and behavioral progress of every student—including their attendance, medical and home/living status (as relevant), and their multi-tiered intervention status (again, as relevant).
A significant portion of these data are required by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act for every school’s annual report and Report Card.
- Use the information collected to help organize what classes and/or “home rooms” students will be assigned to for the next school year.
This is often done to ensure that every (especially elementary and middle school) classroom has only three functional skills groups in it so that teachers can successfully differentiate instruction. This is also done so that all classroom teachers know the functional literacy, math, writing/language arts, and oral expression skill levels of all students—again, so that they can differentiate instruction, and in case they need to provide remediation, accommodations, or modifications.
- Identify and communicate the special needs (as identified during the process—see below) of specific students to the next year’s classroom teacher (or teaching team), as well as to the school’s administration and related services and support staff—so that the school is prepared to implement all necessary interventions starting on the first day of the new school year.
The last part of this goal is critical
Students should not have to wait for effective instruction, or the services, supports, or interventions that they need to succeed in school until Day 2 of the school year—much less Day 5, Week 3, or beyond. Especially for students with IEPs or 504 Plans, their services or interventions (by law) should be fully present and functional on the first day of school.
- To identify the resources and personnel needed to address the universal, strategic, and intensive needs of all students in a school prior to the end of the previous school year, so that (a) needed resources are coordinated or purchased during the summer, and (b) appropriate staff can be deployed or hired.
Thus, in addition to summarizing the progress of all general education students, it is especially critical to review—as part of the Get-Go process—the status and progress of all students who received strategic or intensive services during any part of a school year, as well as the status and progress of students with disabilities who are on either Individual Education or 504 Plans. This review must include both the teachers and related services and other support staff (as relevant) who were primarily (and often cooperatively) responsible for these students’ school programs and programming.
Through this last goal, once again, the Get-Go Process helps districts and schools align their existing funds, personnel, and resources to meet as many student needs as possible. To further facilitate this, in the Get-Go grade-level meetings, the participants use the data and information presented, as well as their more-qualitative experiences with each student, to organize them into one of four different cohorts—as Get-Go, At-Risk, Check-In, or No-Problem students, respectively. These cohorts are defined below.
- A “Get-Go” student is a student who needs immediate interventions in place on the first day of the new school year. Students on IEPs, 504 Plans, and any other state-mandated intervention plan are automatically Get-Go students as their interventions, by law or regulation, must be in place on the first day of the new school year.
However, a Get-Go student might be a medically fragile student, a student with a significant allergy, or some other special student situation that staff need to be prepared for even on the first day of the new school year.
- An “At-Risk” student is a student who has received academic, behavioral, or other interventions during the past school year that were successful to the extent that they are not needed at the beginning of the new school year. These interventions could have been implemented solely by the classroom teacher(s), or they might have involved an Academic or Behavioral Intervention Plan and other support staff.
Regardless, despite the fact that interventions are not immediately needed at the beginning of the school year, current staff still believe that their colleagues at the next grade level need to understand the history and lessons learned regarding these specific students—in case the problems re-emerge or the transition to the new year is not fully successful.
Thus, all new teachers for all At-Risk students are systematically briefed, verbally and through a written Student Briefing Report, on the history of the student, successful and unsuccessful interventions tried, and how to best transition the student into the new school year.
- “Check-In” students have received and have completed one or more successful interventions, and the staff feel that they will have no difficulties in transitioning to the next school year. At the same time, the staff want to put one final “safety net” in place and have someone check in on the student at some point during the first quarter of the school year.
Thus, when identifying Check-In students, the grade-level teams identify the area(s) of concern, when the check-in should occur (e.g., after Week 1, 2, 4, or 9), and who should complete the check-in and with whom. For some students, the check-in simply involves running an attendance or office discipline report in the Office. For others, it involves a scan of selected students’ report cards at the end of the first marking period. And, for others, it involves asking a student’s teacher to complete a brief “Current Student Sheet” to provide some brief feedback on the student’s performance in the classroom.
- “No-Problem” students have made good progress during the current school year, and have no history or characteristics that their future teachers (and others) need to be brief on. In most schools, the vast majority of the students typically are “No-Problem” students.
While most students who are identified with one of the first three designations during the Get-Go process have academic or behavioral needs, some students may be identified, for example, because of (chronic) attendance issues (including being persistently late), because they have medical conditions that teachers and others need to know about prior to the new school year, or because of family issues that impact them at school and that are either historical in nature or that currently exist.
During the Get-Go meetings, all of the cohort-related designations and decisions are documented on the spreadsheets generated, prior to the meeting, using the school’s data management/student information system. After the Get-Go meetings, the data and decisions can be used to:
- Place students in the best homerooms or academic classes or courses to maximize their academic progress during the next school year
- Identify the multi-tiered academic staff, interventions, and groups needed for the coming year, organize students into the best groups possible, and schedule the groups
- Identify the multi-tiered social, emotional, and/or behavioral staff, interventions, and groups (e.g., individual or group counseling) needed for the coming year, organize students into the best groups possible, and schedule the groups
- Identify the multi-tiered academic or social, emotional, and behavioral materials, technology, or other resources needed to address Get-Go or At-Risk students’ needs
- Prepare the next year’s teachers relative to the accommodations, modifications, and/or interventions needed for different students with disabilities
All of these lists and planning are especially important when students are leaving one school in the district and going to another one (e.g., moving from elementary to middle, or middle to high school).
From a Core-Plus Funding perspective, after the Get-Go meetings, administrators and others can evaluate the different lists of students and determine what resources, funding, and personnel will be needed to meet the “No Problem” students’ needs during the coming year and, especially, to meet the Get-Go, At-Risk, Check-In students’ multi-tiered needs. This information is shared with decision-makers at the district level during the (Core-Plus) budgeting process so that every student and school receives the services and supports needed to maximize their success in the coming year.
High-poverty non-white schools in this country receive significantly less money per pupil each year than high-poverty white schools and middle or upper class dominated schools, respectfully. This involves approximately 12.8 million students—many of them attending schools in urban settings.
Because of the financial inequity, these high-poverty schools have fewer resources than middle or upper class-dominant schools, and they are typically staffed by less experienced teachers who, naturally, have more skill gaps, and who resign from the school more often and after fewer years in-rank. In addition, the students in these schools have less access to high level science, math, and advanced placement courses, and less access to needed multi-tiered academic and social, emotional, and behavioral services, supports, programs, and interventions.
Correlated with the poverty, many of these students exhibit health, mental health, academic, and social, emotional, and behavioral challenges, that also triangulate with stress and trauma—including the impact of hunger and poor nutrition, parental incarceration and loss, abuse and neglect, and the exposure to violence and drugs.
From a school perspective, all of this translates into lower numbers of academically-proficient students, and schools that are either in their state’s school improvement programs or that are rated at the low end of the state’s school report card scale.
From a student perspective, this translates into negative effects on students’ school attendance and expectations, classroom engagement and motivation, academic readiness and proficiency, emotional self-control and prosocial interactions and, ultimately, their high school graduation and readiness for the workforce.
The financial inequity occurs especially at the federal level relative to funding for students with disabilities. Some of the inequity also rests at the state level relative to its funding formulas and how it distributes educational funds to all of its districts. Other inequities occur at the district level relative to funds generated from local property taxes.
In the final analysis at the school level, a vicious cycle is created. Despite the fact that teachers’ relationships with their students are one of the strongest predictors of student engagement and learning, these relationships are hard to establish and maintain given the effects that correlate with schools that are underfunded—especially relative to the intensity of the conditions in their communities and of the needs of their students.
Because of the underfunding, many of these schools do not have the effective multi-tiered system of supports that the students need. Thus, the students’ problems persist or expand, classrooms and schools go into crisis, staff become reactive instead of proactive, more students are sucked into the negative climate and culture, and the entire cycle begins anew.
Systemic changes are needed—at the federal, state, and district levels—relative to educational funding policy, principles, and practice. While a Core-Plus Funding process was suggested, it will take more than this.
It will take a collective vision, and a decision—especially by the educators, community leaders, and parents in the successful districts and schools across this country—to see and advocate for the unsuccessful districts and schools in their states as their own.
Part of this vision and decision requires seeing what is happening—not just in these schools, but to these schools, and why. Some of this requires an understanding of history, white privilege, and equity rights. Some of this requires an understanding of the circular factors described in this article.
Clearly, there are challenges and controversies related to funding, equity, and the suggestion of Core-Plus Funding. But our experience in working with thousands of districts nationally over 35+ years is that those that use Core-Plus Funding supported by the Get-Go process have always come close to meeting their collective goals relative to academic proficiency and social, emotional, and behavioral development.
This is not to take our federal and state governments off the hook.
The $23 billion per year funding gap, favoring white over non-white districts and experienced by approximately 12.8 million of our nation’s students, is a travesty. It establishes a moral, social, and economic imperative for change.
When will this be addressed? How will we be celebrating on the 75th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education?
Author. (February, 2019). 23 Billion. Hoboken, NJ: EdBuild. Retrieved from https://edbuild.org/content/23-billion/full-report.pdf
Baker, B., DiCarlo, M. & Weber, M. (2019). The adequacy and fairness of state school finance systems: Findings from the School Finance Indicators Database, School Year 2015-2016. New Jersey: Albert Shanker Institute, Rutgers Graduate School of Education.
Burnette, D. (June 6, 2018). Simple parity in K-12 aid isn’t enough: How it’s distributed proves crucial. Education Week, 37(34), 22-23.
Buck, R. & Deutsch, J. (2014). Effects of poverty on education. Journal of Human Sciences, 11(2), 1139-1148.
Dobard, P. (May 14, 2019). From strong accountability to open enrolment and community engagement: Ten reasons New Orleans’s schools are succeeding. The74, 9, 38. Retrieved from The74million.org
Hegedus, A. (October, 2018). Evaluating the relationships between poverty and school performance. Portland, OR: NWEA
Hughes, M., & Tucker, W. (2018). Poverty as an adverse childhood experience. North Carolina Medical Journal, 79(2), 124-126.
Knoff, H.M. (2018a). The Get-Go Process: Transferring students’ multi-tiered information and data from one school year to staff and prepare for the next. Little Rock, AR: Project ACHIEVE Press.
Knoff, H.M. (2018b). Conducting Quarterly Student Achievement Review (Q-STAR) meetings. Little Rock, AR: Project ACHIEVE Press.
Public Impact: (2018). Closing achievement gaps in diverse and low-poverty schools: An action guide for district leaders. Chapel Hill, NC: Public Impact and Geneva, Switzerland: Oak Foundation. Retrieved from Publicimpact.com
About the Author
Howie Knoff, PhD. is an international consultant in the areas of school improvement, social-emotional learning, multi-tiered systems of support, and behavioral interventions for challenging students. He was a Full Professor and Director of the School Psychology Program at the University of South Florida for 18 years, and the Director of the federally-funded State Improvement Grant for the Arkansas Department of Education for 13 years. The author of over 20 books and 100 articles or book chapters, Howie was the 21st president of National Association of School Psychologists. Learn about his work with Project ACHIEVE Educational Solutions here.