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School Finance Expert Says There Are No Substitutions for Equitably Funding Schools

School finance expert and Rutgers Professor Bruce Baker spoke on School Finance Myths and Realities today at Trinity College.

There are those, including current U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who argue that spending more on public education doesn’t lead to better outcomes. School finance expert and Rutgers Professor Bruce Baker begs to differ, and he has research to back his position up.

“We have more data available now—20 year data sets—and can tease out change over time,” he told students and community members gathered at Trinity College’s Center for Hartford Engagement and Research today. “That’s why there are a number of studies that have come out now that show longitudinally that increased funding leads to better outcomes.”

Studies show that increased school funding particularly makes a difference for low-income students, leading not just to better test scores, but also to increased adult earnings.

“There are no magical substitutions” to equitably funding schools, Baker says. “Running a good school takes having good people—and enough of them. And to get good people into schools you need to pay well enough.”

All districts need highly-qualified educators, but some schools have more significant needs, Baker says. “Districts that serve a high-needs population need more resources to achieve common outcome goals. It takes more money, not just the same money, in a school in a high-poverty area with more students who are English learners.”

While Connecticut students’ average scores on international assessments rival many top-scoring nations, those averages can hide significant disparities between districts, Baker says.

In a 2014 report he authored for the Center for American Progress, Baker examined the nation’s most financially disadvantaged school districts, defining the districts as “those with higher-than-average student needs for their labor-market location and lower-than-average resources when state and local revenues are combined.” He found that 13.6 percent of Connecticut students attend school in these districts, making Connecticut the state with the 5th highest student enrollment in disadvantaged districts.

Baker recently analyzed current school funding data to generate an updated list of financially disadvantaged districts, and found that the most financially disadvantaged school district in the country is New Britain, Connecticut, with Bridgeport at number 4—Waterbury and Danbury are not far down the list.

Though he doesn’t have an explanation for it, in his 2014 report Baker mentions a noteworthy finding. “A seemingly peculiar finding regards the disparate racial distribution of fiscal disadvantage. Predominantly Hispanic school districts outside of major cities, including midsized and smaller cities and large towns, appear more frequently on the fiscally disadvantaged list.”

To improve outcomes for students in these disadvantaged districts Baker says increased funding is essential. “We would need to provide more staff, and more specialized staff in any school with greater student need. Kids should be provided equal opportunity to achieve outcome goals.”

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