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Uncovering the Stark Disparities Behind School Money

This past year, for the tenth year in a row, a national Gallup poll found that Americans view lack of financial support as the largest problem facing US schools.

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Why do many school districts fail to meet the needs of their students? One commonly cited response is our country’s disparate school funding system: because most districts rely heavily on local property tax for funding, schools in poor districts are often left with fewer resources than schools in wealthier areas. Even though school funding issues play out on a local level, in recent decades, it’s risen to the forefront of national issues. This past year, for the tenth year in a row, a national Gallup poll found that Americans view lack of financial support as the largest problem facing America’s schools.

But can more money really fix America’s struggling, poor schools? That is exactly what NPR’s Cory Turner and a team of over 20 NPR member-station reporters wanted to find out. After six months of investigating, Turner and his team published a series of stories digging into school funding disparities from Chicago to Sumter County, Alabama. ProPublica education reporter Annie Waldman spoke with Turner to learn more about their investigation.

A few highlights from our conversation:

Annie Waldman: Nearly every state in the country has been faced with a school funding lawsuit.

Cory Turner: Some 45 states have had school funding lawsuits. It also became clear to me very quickly that these lawsuits are a symptom of a much broader ailment, which is how we pay for our schools, and why it is that school money is so inequitable in so many different places, which, again, as we explained in the reporting, not every time, but quite often, boils down to disparities in local property tax revenue.

The story of America’s school funding system starts with an unlikely character: Satan. Well, sort of.

It really goes to the back to the Old Deluder Satan Law when the Massachusetts Bay Colonists basically said, “Look. If we want every child to be able to read the Bible, then every child needs to be able to read. It is in the best interest of the Colony that every child be taught to read, and as such, any village of 50 or more people needs to pay up for a teacher.” I mean, you can see it in the law too. They’re not just talking to parents. They’re talking to everybody. It was captured in law. It was codified in law, this idea that educating the Colony’s children, or you can extrapolate that to today, the nation’s children, is in the best interests of all citizens. That’s what so interested me with the Old Deluder Satan Law, as it’s known now.

School funding inequities often stem from antiquated segregationist policies.

The challenge is when so much of that funding depends on local affluence and local school district lines. It’s informed in a big way by old segregationist housing policy. You know? I mean, this is the nation we live in, and the fact is, there are an awful lot of school districts that are low wealth, low income districts, and they just don’t have the same capacity to fundraise as other more affluent districts. That’s just a fact. Some states have been very progressive about reckoning with that and using state dollars collected at the state level to help offset some, if not much, of that imbalance. But lots of other states just haven’t done much, if anything, about it.

Working with a team of over 20 NPR member stations is no easy task.

We created a gigantic spreadsheet that has every reporter, every reporter’s phone number, email and a quick logline of the story. I mean, I spent hours with this spreadsheet. This is kind of insane, I actually at one point cut them all out into these little tiny strips of paper and I just taped them on the wall and started rearranging them or clustering them to figure out, this is very early in the process, just to see, “Do I have too much overlap? Do I have too much, too many stories that are basically rich school/poor school?”

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