Spending disparities between districts are not race neutral

Dr. Ericka WeathersPenn State's Dr. Ericka Weathers' research reveals that race remains related to funding and school expenditures.

In a 2018 New York Times op-ed, Rutgers law professor Linda Brown and ACLU Racial Justice program director Dennis Parker echoed that an “abundance of research shows that integration is still one of the most effective tools that we have for achieving racial equity.” Yet segregation not only persists but has been increasing since courts were released from oversight of Brown vs. the Board of Education in the 1990s. This has real consequences for the country’s students—consequences that Dr. Ericka Weathers, Assistant Professor of Education at Penn State, is unearthing.

Weathers, whose research examines the causes and consequences of educational inequality and how policies impact student outcomes, recently shared how school finance in circumstances of between-district segregation ultimately disfavors students of color in a talk with the SDP network.

“The desegregation efforts of the 60s-80s expanded access to school resources specifically through per-pupil expenditures for Black students,” said Weathers, referring to Rucker Johnson’s 2011 study on the topic. “This expansion improved short- and long-term educational outcomes for Black students with no negative effects on White students.”

And while there’s widely-cited research from the 70s-90s arguing that school resource inputs hadn’t led to consistent or discernible improvements in student outcomes, more recent research shows a causal relationship* between school resources/funding and student outcomes. Poor and minority districts are more likely to have teachers with less experience and training, fewer years of schooling, and less skill relative to low-poverty and majority White districts, for example.

Zooming in on districts

In the larger conversation about why segregation is problematic, funding matters—particularly in districts. Being the administrative units where many funding and spending decisions are made, districts provide an interesting lens for looking at school finance. Districts often take an incrementalist approach to budgeting, meaning they assess what it will cost to purchase the same mix of goods and services in the coming budget year and compare that number to available revenues. In this model, local political advocacy may protect certain types of spending when faced with budget cuts.

Weathers noted that racial segregation is found to be higher between districts in a state than within districts. Thus, differences in resources and spending practices between districts have consequences for inequalities.

“We know that segregation is related to racial disparities in total and local per-pupil revenue, and that when Black students are increasingly concentrated in separate school districts than their white peers in the same state, this total revenue shifts in a way that disfavors the typical Black student's district relative to the typical White student's district,” explained Weathers. “This is true even after controlling for racial differences in poverty.”

So how is contemporary segregation between districts related to racial disparities in school district expenditures?

Spending disparities are not race neutral

Using a sample of 201,257 district-year observations, collapsed to the state-year level from three longitudinal data sets (the School Funding Fairness Data System, the Common Core of Data, and the Comparable Wage Index), Weathers compared financial data between districts within states. These data spanned six financial categories: an umbrella category of Total Expenditures and five subcategories including administrative, infrastructure, instructional, support services, and other. Amongst these categories, Weathers found minimal evidence of school spending driven by needs or poverty, yet some evidence of school spending driven by race.

“We see negative coefficients for Black/White total expenditures, suggesting that as Black/White segregation increases, spending shifts away from the average Black student’s district relative to the average White student’s.” Weathers also found a marginally significant and negative relationship between Black–White segregation and instructional spending.

Similar yet not exact shifts were also found for the average Latinx student relative to the average White student. “The pattern of Latinx–White expenditure disparities differs from that of Black–White disparities. Increases in Latinx–White segregation are significantly related to shifts in per pupil infrastructure expenditures that disfavor the typical Latinx student’s district relative to the typical White student’s district.”

While some of the shifts were modest, they’re meaningful in terms of what those dollar differences might buy. These funds might make the difference between hiring or firing a teacher, investing in building improvements, or maintaining adequate food service staff during lunchtime. Additionally, there was some evidence of funding relationships in categories that matter for student performance—research has revealed causal relationships between infrastructure and instructional funding categories and student outcome, for example.

“In an ideal world, money should flow toward where the needs are,” concluded Weathers. “But that’s not what we’re seeing. If school spending is race neutral, we shouldn’t see a relationship between racial segregation and funding disparities after controlling for poverty and other fiscally relevant characteristics of districts.” The negative relationships between racial segregation and financial categories that matter for student outcomes raise concerns about segregation contributing to inequality in academic achievement and raise questions about the mechanisms that might be driving these decisions.

Takeaways for practitioners

Weathers’ research sheds light on some critical points for states and districts to consider during the budgeting process:

  • Interrogate budget practices. Ask:
    • How are budgets being set?
    • Is there discretion in this process?
  • Does this process vary across districts within states (for example, is it set by the school board in one district, but another entity in a different district)?
  • Explore the role of race in budgeting, even if not directly linked. Ask:
    • Is there something correlated with spending disparities that is also correlated with race/racial segregation that was unaccounted for?


Check out Dr. Weathers’ full webinar and her full research paper.


* Weathers cited work by Candelaria & Shores; Joshua Hyman; Jackson, Johnson, & Persico; and Lafortune, Rothstein, & Schanzenbach