May 30, 2019
Why Education Reform Must Prioritize Resource Equity
By Zoë Stemm-Calderon
Director, Education

We all need a great education, but only some of us get it. As Americans, we love to talk about education as the surest way to advance opportunity – particularly if you weren’t born into wealth. However, there is plenty of evidence to demonstrate the disparate outcomes the United States education system perpetuates.

For example, black students are 13 percent less likely to graduate high school than their white peers. And less than 10 percent of low-income students graduate from college by their mid-20s. At a time when our nation and our schools are becoming more diverse, this is a problem we must finally find the collective will and shared strategy to address. 

Today, a tremendous amount of energy and philanthropic funding is devoted to creating ideas for how to transform this system into one that serves all students. Any community that has the will to tackle educational inequity has a dizzying array of reform options to navigate: Career-connected curriculum, whole child approaches, continuous improvement, choice and myriad riffs on re-imagining learning (personalized learning, deeper learning, student-centered learning). While each of these visions for how to shift the “grammar of schooling” brings something to the table, none alone will ensure that a system designed to provide inequitable opportunities evolves into a system that supports all American children to thrive in career, community and life. 

In reality, unless you are born white and middle class, you are likely to attend a public school with severe resource constraints that hamper your ability to have all of the opportunities you need to learn and achieve. Data shows that school districts attended predominantly by students of color receive $23 billion less in funding than primarily white districts, despite serving the same number of students. And school districts that are poor and white receive about $150 less per student than the national average. In contrast, school districts that are poor and attended primarily by students of color receive $1,600 less. Both are huge problems for our young people, particularly because students from low-income families likely need more, not fewer, resources to ensure they have the learning opportunities and environments they need to thrive.

That disparity in funding manifests in disparities in the things money can be invested in to support learning –well-prepared and supported educators, time spent on learning, wrap-around supports, enriching experiences, new instructional materials, technology, smaller class sizes and more. Without simultaneously advancing resource equity, none of the current vanguard ideas will reverse the long history of disparate experiences and outcomes that are a hallmark of our education system today.   

Resource equity was among the recommendations in the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development’s game-changing report “A Nation At Hope.” The commission’s work was guided by the science of how children learn and develop, as well as students, teachers, and parents’ voices, and it had a clear conclusion – learning is social and emotional and the 21st century education system our country requires must be redesigned to support the whole child and every child.  

While I applaud the commission for addressing resource equity, among the broad audience of educators, families and researchers who focus on social emotional learning and whole child reforms, the critical conversation about correcting the wildly inequitable way we fund our schools is often left off to the side. And that’s probably because it’s a difficult discussion. These decisions are made on a state-by-state, district-by-district and school-by-school basis and funding formulas for schools are notoriously complex. Furthermore, school funding is often seen as a zero-sum game in a system that is already under-resourced across the board. 

But those who want to address disparities in education need to do a better job taking resource equity into the equation. We can learn a lot from teachers in red and blue states alike who are taking to the streets in record numbers to demand not just a living wage for themselves, but more funding for their schools. They know we are never going to be able to correct the disparate outcomes our system produces year after year until we get this piece right.  

Instead of proceeding as we have been, we could instead organize around a vision to the transform learning environments and build a system that invests resources wisely to support all young people to achieve. This means spending more on students who face greater barriers to a good education and organizing resources in ways that accelerates learning so all students achieve ambitious aims.

The good news here is we’re seeing momentum across states and districts – in policymakers’ political campaigns and policy priorities, in litigation, in advocacy and in the rising demand from teachers for resources, not only for their salaries, but for their students.  Now, together, we need to push even harder to bring this issue to the forefront in states across the country, so we have the tools we need to build an education system that works for all students.