Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
September 5th, 2008
How Do We Fund Our Schools?

Poverty must not be a bar to learning, and learning must offer an escape from poverty,”
- President Lyndon Johnson, 1965

It’s a little known fact that when it comes to the funding of our schools, the U.S. Government contributes about 10 cents to every dollar spent on K-12 education – less than the majority of countries in the world. And it wasn’t until 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as part of his War on Poverty, that the federal government created a lasting program to fund K-12 education.

So where does the bulk of the money for our 14,000 public elementary and secondary school districts schools come from? State and local governments. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, state and local funding accounts for approximately 93 percent of education expenditures.

What’s the source of these funds? In most states, it’s sales and income taxes (both corporate and personal). But on a local level, these funds usually come from property taxes, which are set by the school board, local officials or citizens. It’s this system that causes the most dramatic differences between states, and even within districts.

Depending on the property wealth of a community, its schools might boast gleaming buildings and equipment, or they might be dilapidated – struggling with the burden of outdated equipment and unpaid bills.

According to the most recent Funding Gap report by the non-profit group The Education Trust, many states still provide the least amount of funding to school districts serving students with the greatest needs.

In 1999, for example, Illinois’ funding gap was the second-largest in the nation. By 2005, the Illinois gap was still the second-largest, and had gotten worse. Illinois is joined by Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin at the top of the list of states in which the funding gap between high- and low-poverty districts grew between 1999 and 2005.

Jonathan Kozol, the education activist, teacher and author, famously described these “gaps” in his 1992 book Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools. That same year, he told an interviewer: “We need to have urban schools that are so good that they will not be abandoned by white people, and this is impossible without equitable funding. Until we have equitable funding for our urban schools, there’s no chance in the world that white people in large numbers are going to return.”

These inequities have led to court challenges in almost every state. And in the majority of them, the court has ordered the states to overhaul their system to fund public schools more equally. These challenges began in the 1970’s, with a landmark case in California – Serrano v Priest (1971). In that case, the state’s high court ruled that a child’s access to public education cannot be based on the wealth of his or her parents.

In the past decade, the debate over school finance has grown as states have adopted performance standards, enforced by No Child Left Behind. Some argue that to meet higher standards, schools need more money. Others say that spending increases don’t always translate into higher performance, and that if more money in funneled into our schools – it must be well accounted for.

“Locally, if we just work on getting more money and use it the same old way without raising expectations or professional development, then there will be only modest improvement in the schools,” says Allan Odden, Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


  • Jane S.

    What we need is to fund the public universities to raise professional development. Continuing Education can raise our caring, our pay, our information and our skills.

  • SoD1

    TAX the Churches, Tax ALL Religious Institutions, TAX the Corporations ‘preemptively’ for creating and educating the basis for their Workforce!

    Utilize that Money to finance the Education of what IS the Future of America, ALL our Children!

  • Josh T.

    We need to restructure our system of funding for public education at the k-12 level. The cause for poor student performance is not due to bad teachers, it would would ridiculous to attribute such a characteristic to the entire teaching profession of America. Public schools are failing because property taxes and state sales and income tax vary on location. Funding can easily determine quality of teaching, in turn affecting child performance. Instead, lets create a federal system of funding which would be based upon student demand. Funding would derive from taxes, but would be equally doled out by the federal government, relative to student population in a given area.

  • Bob Tallon

    How did America fund education in the past. The separating of students into grades and age groups keeps the costs totally high. Why can’t a teacher be proficient in several areas. Such as history,basic math,and science . Mixing age groups lets older children mentor younger ones lessons for younger students reenforce forgotten lessons for older children. Lessons for older children have an inductive effect for younger children as they hear bits and pieces. This industrialization of education is the whole problem with education. Students thrive where they are known and excepted, no modern regional school district provides this.Modern regional school districts foster mental disassociation ,aggression, sexual tension,and unhealthy mental development. The teachers,support staff,administration degrade into industrialized robots incapable of empathy,concern,and compassion.This process builds great armies but poor human beings.It is the process that fosters the monster we now call public education not the students and teachers. The same self assured Noble prize winning economists that have bankrupted America promote this dissociative model of robot existence to maximize profit,efficiency,information,housing,advertisement,religion,family and government.
    Humans work best in groups of 50 to 15 for social development. This was the model of the past that created a middle class that built the greatest nation of modern times. Industrialization is putting us into the toilet.

Inside This Report

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2014 Educational Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.