Would More Money Save A Promising Student Who is Struggling And Fix Inequality in School Spending?

Taheem Jones before his first day at a school beset by funding issues. SAQUAN STIMPSON/SPECIAL TO HECHINGER REPORT

"I never rode a bike with training wheels," says Taheem Fennell. One day, when he was four, he just ran and jumped on, his feet pushing forward on the pedals. Taheem is now 13, but his riding has been curtailed. His mother forbids him from tooling around their Quaker Hill neighborhood in Wilmington, Delaware, because she's worried about his safety. In the summer of 2017, Taheem's 16-year-old sister, Naveha Gibbs, was shot and killed 20 minutes away; she was with a 26-year-old man thought to be in a gang.

In the crisis over income inequality in the U.S., Wilmington is ground zero. For youth, the city is the most dangerous in the country. In Taheem's neighborhood, where students are predominantly black, schools are under-funded and under-resourced.

They're also being neglected by the Trump administration. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' push for alternatives to the traditional public system would help drive students toward charter schools and private schools at the local level. (Her Obama-appointed predecessor, Arne Duncan, also pushed reforms that favored charter schools.) Enrollment in the lowest-performing public schools in Wilmington has plummeted. The city's lowest performing school, Bayard Middle School, lost nearly half its students in the last 10 years.

Lately the issue has gotten some attention, however. Parents and advocates are suing in more than a dozen states to increase spending for schools that serve low-income students, including a suit against Delaware. And presidential candidates are starting to talk about it: Former Vice President Joe Biden made increasing school funding central to his education platform, Senator Bernie Sanders proposed tripling Title I funding for low-income schools and Senator Elizabeth Warren proposed limiting support for charter schools and boosting funding for traditional public schools.

But Taheem's experience shows how high the stakes are for the children living, and being educated, in these neighborhoods.

While Taheem was in elementary school, the system seemed to be working. His sister was killed about a month before he started fifth grade and, understandably, he was prone to angry outbursts. The school arranged for him to see a counselor, who taught him strategies to cope with feelings of sadness or rage. "When I get mad, I calm myself down," says Taheem. "I either go in the corner and read a book or count to ten with my fingers and then think of something nice, fun." The elementary school librarian also helped Taheem find books that he liked to read, such as the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, which helped focus his mind on something positive, his mother, Charmaine Jones, says.

But when Taheem graduated to Bayard, a virtually windowless brick fortress surrounded by a chain-linked fence, matters took a downward turn. In his first month, Taheem got into a fight in math class. In October, he says, eighth-grade boys jumped him in the hallway and left him with a bump on his head and a busted lip. He made friends with boys who drew the attention of the police. His mother was called into school so often to deal with his behavioral problems that she quit one of her jobs as a home health aide. "I had to choose between my other job and my son," Jones said.

The school, she found, had too few resources to help Taheem cope. It has a library but no librarian to run it—so most of the time it is closed. The school has only one behavioral health consultant for about 325 students, the vast majority of whom, says the school counselor, have experienced trauma. Since the consultant can only take on a dozen or so cases at a time, teachers and administrators serve as ad hoc mental health or social service providers for children in crisis. Taheem eventually saw the counselor, but critical time had been lost. Jones wanted to transfer Taheem to another school, but she was told there were no spots available until the next school year.

Research shows that a lack of safety takes a big toll on school children, even those who haven't themselves been a victim of a crime. Students living in unsafe neighborhoods—or go to school with students who live in those places—score one-tenth of a school year behind on academic achievement tests than children who live in safer places, according to a 2018 study of Chicago Public Schools. There are things that schools can do to help—hire more counselors, train staff in trauma-informed teaching and provide art and music programs—but they need resources to do it.

One of the biggest obstacles to fixing inequality in school spending is figuring out how much schools already spend. The Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2015, required states to publicly reveal how much money each school gets from local, state and federal sources per student. (The Trump administration rolled back some of the ESSA regulations but rules that require school-level spending reports remain in effect.) Historically, public schools have organized spending by category on the district-wide level—teachers, benefits and materials, for instance—but there were no structures in place to calculate how much money was spent in each individual school, causing significant delays in releasing the new data.

States have now begun publishing how much is spent in each school, and it's sure to fuel more debate, says Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. It will be shocking, even to school principals, how much money is spent on individual schools, she says. "It's often jaw-dropping for them," says Roza.

The push for transparency is part of a movement to overhaul school funding formulas so that schools in poorer neighborhoods are provided similar resources to those in wealthy ones. Nationally, schools primarily serving black and brown children receive $23 billion less than schools primarily serving white students, according to EdBuild, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Protesters support Chicago’s striking teachers. Scott Heins/Getty

Advocates hope schools' new numbers will have some effect as they continue trickling out next year, helping pressure state legislatures to spend more money on children from low-income families. Three states, including notoriously stingy Mississippi, have hired a national organization to help change their formulas. The new funding transparency is also giving ammunition to the teacher protests that have swept the country, bringing additional pressure for change from within the classroom. Teachers in Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, West Virginia and Oakland walked off the job this year over teacher compensation, class size and classroom funding.

Critics of increased funding have argued that the problem isn't a lack of money, it's that traditional public schools in poorer neighborhoods tend to be dysfunctional. Along with high staff turnover, they often lack a coherent approach to address the emotional and academic needs of students.

Hardly anyone would argue that school funding does not make any difference, but academic research on the effects of school funding on kids' classroom performance and long-term success has been mixed. More money does not always equal better results for students—at least not as can be measured by math and reading assessments. An influx of money at Bayard wouldn't immediately solve troubles like how to attract the best teachers to this tough neighborhood.

Nor would it remove union rules that can block school leaders from picking which teachers get assigned there. Bayard, for example, was given occasional infusions of cash and marched through state-monitored turnaround efforts with few signs of improvement—most recently, about five years ago, when it was given money and assistance supported by Obama's Race to the Top grants. This year, roughly only 4 percent of its students were proficient in math and 13 percent were proficient in reading.

"It turns out when you give schools extra funds they rarely feel like they can actually rethink what they can actually do with them," says Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank. "You end up putting more dollars into schools, and everything they have been doing for 40 years remains intact."

Even still, public schools across the country have been grappling with the messy reality of figuring out how much to spend per child. It's not a straightforward calculation: it also involves accounting for expenditure in administrative offices and teacher pension liabilities, which can vary widely. After the Every Student Succeeds Act's federal mandate, Delaware was the first state to set rules for how to report the data, and it is expected to release that information next fiscal year. So far, nearly 20 states have published their data publicly. But this fall, an Education Department official complained that states were burying spending reports for fear the public wouldn't be able to understand them.

Many others are grappling with how to best present the complicated data—which can include non-teaching costs and initially weren't calculated uniformly—to the public, Roza said, and they should begin to release their information in the coming year.

Figuring out how much schools spend is just the start. To get a better understanding of what a school lacks, policymakers need to know what the money is being spent on. A recent report from the ACLU, for instance, found 1.7 million children nationwide attend schools where there are police officers but no counselors.

But the years spent dithering about how to send more resources to struggling schools like Bayard, and track where the money is spent, come at a cost even more difficult to calculate. As dysfunctional as some of this nation's schools are, for children like Taheem, who was harmed by violence he can't comprehend, they're the best hope they have.

"Y'all pile them all up in one school, and all these kids have all these problems," says Taheem's mother, who plans to move her family to a safer neighborhood as soon as she can afford it. "It's ridiculous."

This story about school funding was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.