Spending Disparities Foster Inequality Among Kids, New Reports Say

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Urban Institute

Public funding does not benefit children equally across the United States. Two new reports show how money pipelines vary.

Just as President Donald Trump proposes yanking federal funds serving 1.6 million children after school, new reports show two ways inequality of funding could widen for children.

The president’s budget, which is before Congress this week, would cut the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative, which provides after-school programs for children in areas across the nation with high poverty.

Wide disparities in public spending for children among the states could get wider because of population changes, according to the Urban Institute.

And at the school level, PTA fundraising in affluent communities increasingly bankrolls equipment, after-school programs and even teacher salaries, according to the Center for American Progress, leaving poorer schools in the dust.

Julia B. Isaacs is a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and co-author of the report “Unequal Playing Field? State Differences in Spending on Children in 2013,” released Tuesday.

“There are disparities now [among states],” Isaacs said.

State and local spending on children ranges from $13,430 per child in Vermont to $4,590 in Utah, according to the report. States in the Northeast generally spend about $10,000 per child, compared with states in the South and West, which generally spend $7,000 or less, Isaacs said. Figures are adjusted for the cost of living.

These dollars fund education, health and social services for children, with the bulk (88 percent) going for education, Isaacs said.

The problem is that the child population is growing in the South and West, while it is decreasing in the Northeast, she said.

Unless states in the South and West allocate more money, their per-child spending will go even lower.

This is a concern because the state budgets are going to have to stretch, she said. “We see better outcomes for children in states with high spending.

“If federal funding isn’t growing, it will be a double whammy,” Isaacs said.

School vs. school

Catherine Brown, vice president for education policy at the Center for American Progress, said the gap in education funding for affluent and low-income kids is exacerbated by PTA fundraising in affluent schools.

“This is just one more lens on school inequities,” she said about the Center’s new report “Hidden Money: The Outsized Role of Parent Contributions in School Finance.”

PTA fundraising has nearly tripled since the 1990s, rising to $425 million in schools across the nation by 2010, according to the report.

Such fundraising occurs mostly in already affluent communities, according to the report.

Funding for low-income children at the school level is already falling behind, Brown said, noting that kids from disadvantaged communities actually need more, not less, funding.

The report recommends several things, she said.

  • States should promote greater transparency around PTA funding.
  • Districts should redistribute some of the money around the district.
  • Teacher salaries should be the responsibility of the district, and PTA funds should not be used for salaries.
  • Schools should partner with nonprofits to bring more enrichment services to schools.

Districts with these policies did not see a decline in PTA fundraising, Brown said.

The Urban Institute report on public spending said federal funding could aid states with a growing child population. However, it said funds probably should not be given in block grants, which lock in spending and cannot respond to shifts in population.