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A Bold Pitch To Boost School Funding For The Nation's Most Vulnerable Students


School district borders have become engines of inequity in many places. They can be drawn to keep children out of a neighborhood's schools. They can also be drawn to keep a district's wealth in. Now, with many districts facing budget cuts because of the pandemic, one group is proposing a radical change to the way America funds its schools. NPR education correspondent Cory Turner is here to walk us through it.

Hey, Cory.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Who is this group, and what are they proposing?

TURNER: Yeah. So they're called EdBuild, and they advocate for more equitable school funding. And they've just released a new report. They call it Clean Slate. And in it, EdBuild really takes a swing at a key pillar of America's school funding system, and that is the fact that our schools get nearly half of their money from local sources. And as we all know, that's usually in the form of property taxes, which is one reason, though, we see big funding differences between school districts even when those districts are in the same county.

KELLY: OK. So that is the landscape. What sort of change is EdBuild proposing?

TURNER: Well, so those funding differences I just mentioned, they're often larger - at least in local funding - in northern states. And that's because districts there tend to be smaller and often concentrate poverty or affluence. But in the South, school district lines tend to follow county lines. And that means that districts are more likely to encompass both pockets of poverty and affluence. So this local spending gets spread out more equitably. Now, obviously, many of these southern states still have incredibly flawed systems because of funding choices that are made at the state level. But what EdBuild is arguing here is that distributing local property taxes at the county level, or even more broadly at the state level, would be a big step in the right direction for the 37 states that don't currently do it.

KELLY: Intriguing, and I would also assume controversial in richer communities where people pay a lot in tax, and they expect that money to stay in their school districts.

TURNER: Yeah, absolutely. I think it's fair to say this idea would be political kryptonite in lots of places. But, you know, EdBuild's argument is that it would help a lot more kids than it would hurt. They did a huge analysis of the data, and they found that if states that don't do this were to switch to a county or state-based model for sharing this local tax revenue, roughly 2 out of 3 students would receive equal or greater school funding than they do now - 2 out of 3. And that would be with an average revenue increase of nearly $1,000 per student. Now, obviously, Mary Louise, that's still a third of kids who would see decreased funding, and changing the system would require everybody to buy in.

KELLY: Hmm. I mean, I wonder if it is more or less feasible in this particular moment where so many districts are facing just huge budget cuts because of the pandemic. Does that make it more possible that states would consider a change like this?

TURNER: You know, I think it's a good moment to start talking about it. I think the short answer to whether or not states would actually do it now is probably not because it would be so incredibly hard to do. You know, state budgets are in such a crunch right now, likely the only realistic way to help schools is with help from the federal government. Still, you know, I spoke with several school funding experts who told me we really have to have a broader school funding conversation sometime. The system is deeply flawed enough, and it's abundantly clear every time we go through a crisis like this.

KELLY: NPR's Cory Turner reporting.

Thanks, Cory.

TURNER: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAPANCAKES' "WHAT YOU WANT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.