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Public education is facing a crisis of epic proportions

How politics and the pandemic put schools in the line of fire.

article about public education

A previous version of this story incorrectly said that 39 percent of American children were on track in math. That is the percentage performing below grade level.

Test scores are down, and violence is up . Parents are screaming at school boards , and children are crying on the couches of social workers. Anger is rising. Patience is falling.

For public schools, the numbers are all going in the wrong direction. Enrollment is down. Absenteeism is up. There aren’t enough teachers, substitutes or bus drivers. Each phase of the pandemic brings new logistics to manage, and Republicans are planning political campaigns this year aimed squarely at failings of public schools.

Public education is facing a crisis unlike anything in decades, and it reaches into almost everything that educators do: from teaching math, to counseling anxious children, to managing the building.

Political battles are now a central feature of education, leaving school boards, educators and students in the crosshairs of culture warriors. Schools are on the defensive about their pandemic decision-making, their curriculums, their policies regarding race and racial equity and even the contents of their libraries. Republicans — who see education as a winning political issue — are pressing their case for more “parental control,” or the right to second-guess educators’ choices. Meanwhile, an energized school choice movement has capitalized on the pandemic to promote alternatives to traditional public schools.

“The temperature is way up to a boiling point,” said Nat Malkus, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank. “If it isn’t a crisis now, you never get to crisis.”

Experts reach for comparisons. The best they can find is the earthquake following Brown v. Board of Education , when the Supreme Court ordered districts to desegregate and White parents fled from their cities’ schools. That was decades ago.

Today, the cascading problems are felt acutely by the administrators, teachers and students who walk the hallways of public schools across the country. Many say they feel unprecedented levels of stress in their daily lives.

Remote learning, the toll of illness and death, and disruptions to a dependable routine have left students academically behind — particularly students of color and those from poor families. Behavior problems ranging from inability to focus in class all the way to deadly gun violence have gripped campuses. Many students and teachers say they are emotionally drained, and experts predict schools will be struggling with the fallout for years to come.

Teresa Rennie, an eighth-grade math and science teacher in Philadelphia, said in 11 years of teaching, she has never referred this many children to counseling.

“So many students are needy. They have deficits academically. They have deficits socially,” she said. Rennie said that she’s drained, too. “I get 45 minutes of a prep most days, and a lot of times during that time I’m helping a student with an assignment, or a child is crying and I need to comfort them and get them the help they need. Or there’s a problem between two students that I need to work with. There’s just not enough time.”

Many wonder: How deep is the damage?

Learning lost

At the start of the pandemic, experts predicted that students forced into remote school would pay an academic price. They were right.

“The learning losses have been significant thus far and frankly I’m worried that we haven’t stopped sinking,” said Dan Goldhaber, an education researcher at the American Institutes for Research.

Some of the best data come from the nationally administered assessment called i-Ready, which tests students three times a year in reading and math, allowing researchers to compare performance of millions of students against what would be expected absent the pandemic. It found significant declines, especially among the youngest students and particularly in math.

The low point was fall 2020, when all students were coming off a spring of chaotic, universal remote classes. By fall 2021 there were some improvements, but even then, academic performance remained below historic norms.

Take third grade, a pivotal year for learning and one that predicts success going forward. In fall 2021, 38 percent of third-graders were below grade level in reading, compared with 31 percent historically. In math, 39 percent of students were below grade level, vs. 29 percent historically.

Damage was most severe for students from the lowest-income families, who were already performing at lower levels.

A McKinsey & Co. study found schools with majority-Black populations were five months behind pre-pandemic levels, compared with majority-White schools, which were two months behind. Emma Dorn, a researcher at McKinsey, describes a “K-shaped” recovery, where kids from wealthier families are rebounding and those in low-income homes continue to decline.

“Some students are recovering and doing just fine. Other people are not,” she said. “I’m particularly worried there may be a whole cohort of students who are disengaged altogether from the education system.”

A hunt for teachers, and bus drivers

Schools, short-staffed on a good day, had little margin for error as the omicron variant of the coronavirus swept over the country this winter and sidelined many teachers. With a severe shortage of substitutes, teachers had to cover other classes during their planning periods, pushing prep work to the evenings. San Francisco schools were so strapped that the superintendent returned to the classroom on four days this school year to cover middle school math and science classes. Classes were sometimes left unmonitored or combined with others into large groups of unglorified study halls.

“The pandemic made an already dire reality even more devastating,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, referring to the shortages.

In 2016, there were 1.06 people hired for every job listing. That figure has steadily dropped, reaching 0.59 hires for each opening last year, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show. In 2013, there were 557,320 substitute teachers, the BLS reported. In 2020, the number had fallen to 415,510. Virtually every district cites a need for more subs.

It’s led to burnout as teachers try to fill in the gaps.

“The overall feelings of teachers right now are ones of just being exhausted, beaten down and defeated, and just out of gas. Expectations have been piled on educators, even before the pandemic, but nothing is ever removed,” said Jennifer Schlicht, a high school teacher in Olathe, Kan., outside Kansas City.

Research shows the gaps in the number of available educators are most acute in areas including special education and educators who teach English language learners, as well as substitutes. And all school year, districts have been short on bus drivers , who have been doubling up routes, and forcing late school starts and sometimes cancellations for lack of transportation.

Many educators predict that fed-up teachers will probably quit, exacerbating the problem. And they say political attacks add to the burnout. Teachers are under scrutiny over lesson plans, and critics have gone after teachers unions, which for much of the pandemic demanded remote learning.

“It’s just created an environment that people don’t want to be part of anymore,” said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association. “People want to take care of kids, not to be accused and punished and criticized.”

Falling enrollment

Traditional public schools educate the vast majority of American children, but enrollment has fallen, a worrisome trend that could have lasting repercussions. Enrollment in traditional public schools fell to less than 49.4 million students in fall 2020 , a 2.7 percent drop from a year earlier .

National data for the current school year is not yet available. But if the trend continues, that will mean less money for public schools as federal and state funding are both contingent on the number of students enrolled. For now, schools have an infusion of federal rescue money that must be spent by 2024.

Some students have shifted to private or charter schools. A rising number , especially Black families , opted for home schooling. And many young children who should have been enrolling in kindergarten delayed school altogether. The question has been: will these students come back?

Some may not. Preliminary data for 19 states compiled by Nat Malkus, of the American Enterprise Institute, found seven states where enrollment dropped in fall 2020 and then dropped even further in 2021. His data show 12 states that saw declines in 2020 but some rebounding in 2021 — though not one of them was back to 2019 enrollment levels.

Joshua Goodman, associate professor of education and economics at Boston University, studied enrollment in Michigan schools and found high-income, White families moved to private schools to get in-person school. Far more common, though, were lower-income Black families shifting to home schooling or other remote options because they were uncomfortable with the health risks of in person.

“Schools were damned if they did, and damned if they didn’t,” Goodman said.

At the same time, charter schools, which are privately run but publicly funded, saw enrollment increase by 7 percent, or nearly 240,000 students, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. There’s also been a surge in home schooling. Private schools saw enrollment drop slightly in 2020-21 but then rebound this academic year, for a net growth of 1.7 percent over two years, according to the National Association of Independent Schools, which represents 1,600 U.S. schools.

Absenteeism on the rise

Even if students are enrolled, they won’t get much schooling if they don’t show up.

Last school year, the number of students who were chronically absent — meaning they have missed more than 10 percent of school days — nearly doubled from before the pandemic, according to data from a variety of states and districts studied by EveryDay Labs, a company that works with districts to improve attendance.

This school year, the numbers got even worse.

In Connecticut, for instance, the number of chronically absent students soared from 12 percent in 2019-20 to 20 percent the next year to 24 percent this year, said Emily Bailard, chief executive of the company. In Oakland, Calif., they went from 17.3 percent pre-pandemic to 19.8 percent last school year to 43 percent this year. In Pittsburgh, chronic absences stayed where they were last school year at about 25 percent, then shot up to 45 percent this year.

“We all expected that this year would look much better,” Bailard said. One explanation for the rise may be that schools did not keep careful track of remote attendance last year and the numbers understated the absences then, she said.

The numbers were the worst for the most vulnerable students. This school year in Connecticut, for instance, 24 percent of all students were chronically absent, but the figure topped 30 percent for English-learners, students with disabilities and those poor enough to qualify for free lunch. Among students experiencing homelessness, 56 percent were chronically absent.

Fights and guns

Schools are open for in-person learning almost everywhere, but students returned emotionally unsettled and unable to conform to normally accepted behavior. At its most benign, teachers are seeing kids who cannot focus in class, can’t stop looking at their phones, and can’t figure out how to interact with other students in all the normal ways. Many teachers say they seem younger than normal.

Amy Johnson, a veteran teacher in rural Randolph, Vt., said her fifth-graders had so much trouble being together that the school brought in a behavioral specialist to work with them three hours each week.

“My students are not acclimated to being in the same room together,” she said. “They don’t listen to each other. They cannot interact with each other in productive ways. When I’m teaching I might have three or five kids yelling at me all at the same time.”

That loss of interpersonal skills has also led to more fighting in hallways and after school. Teachers and principals say many incidents escalate from small disputes because students lack the habit of remaining calm. Many say the social isolation wrought during remote school left them with lower capacity to manage human conflict.

Just last week, a high-schooler in Los Angeles was accused of stabbing another student in a school hallway, police on the big island of Hawaii arrested seven students after an argument escalated into a fight, and a Baltimore County, Md., school resource officer was injured after intervening in a fight during the transition between classes.

There’s also been a steep rise in gun violence. In 2021, there were at least 42 acts of gun violence on K-12 campuses during regular hours, the most during any year since at least 1999, according to a Washington Post database . The most striking of 2021 incidents was the shooting in Oxford, Mich., that killed four. There have been already at least three shootings in 2022.

Back to school has brought guns, fighting and acting out

The Center for Homeland Defense and Security, which maintains its own database of K-12 school shootings using a different methodology, totaled nine active shooter incidents in schools in 2021, in addition to 240 other incidents of gunfire on school grounds. So far in 2022, it has recorded 12 incidents. The previous high, in 2019, was 119 total incidents.

David Riedman, lead researcher on the K-12 School Shooting Database, points to four shootings on Jan. 19 alone, including at Anacostia High School in D.C., where gunshots struck the front door of the school as a teen sprinted onto the campus, fleeing a gunman.

Seeing opportunity

Fueling the pressure on public schools is an ascendant school-choice movement that promotes taxpayer subsidies for students to attend private and religious schools, as well as publicly funded charter schools, which are privately run. Advocates of these programs have seen the public system’s woes as an excellent opportunity to push their priorities.

EdChoice, a group that promotes these programs, tallies seven states that created new school choice programs last year. Some are voucher-type programs where students take some of their tax dollars with them to private schools. Others offer tax credits for donating to nonprofit organizations, which give scholarships for school expenses. Another 15 states expanded existing programs, EdChoice says.

The troubles traditional schools have had managing the pandemic has been key to the lobbying, said Michael McShane, director of national research for EdChoice. “That is absolutely an argument that school choice advocates make, for sure.”

If those new programs wind up moving more students from public to private systems, that could further weaken traditional schools, even as they continue to educate the vast majority of students.

Kevin G. Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, who opposes school choice programs, sees the surge of interest as the culmination of years of work to undermine public education. He is both impressed by the organization and horrified by the results.

“I wish that organizations supporting public education had the level of funding and coordination that I’ve seen in these groups dedicated to its privatization,” he said.

A final complication: Politics

Rarely has education been such a polarizing political topic.

Republicans, fresh off Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the Virginia governor’s race, have concluded that key to victory is a push for parental control and “parents rights.” That’s a nod to two separate topics.

First, they are capitalizing on parent frustrations over pandemic policies, including school closures and mandatory mask policies. The mask debate, which raged at the start of the school year, got new life this month after Youngkin ordered Virginia schools to allow students to attend without face coverings.

The notion of parental control also extends to race, and objections over how American history is taught. Many Republicans also object to school districts’ work aimed at racial equity in their systems, a basket of policies they have dubbed critical race theory. Critics have balked at changes in admissions to elite school in the name of racial diversity, as was done in Fairfax, Va. , and San Francisco ; discussion of White privilege in class ; and use of the New York Times’s “1619 Project,” which suggests slavery and racism are at the core of American history.

“Everything has been politicized,” said Domenech, of AASA. “You’re beside yourself saying, ‘How did we ever get to this point?’”

Part of the challenge going forward is that the pandemic is not over. Each time it seems to be easing, it returns with a variant vengeance, forcing schools to make politically and educationally sensitive decisions about the balance between safety and normalcy all over again.

At the same time, many of the problems facing public schools feed on one another. Students who are absent will probably fall behind in learning, and those who fall behind are likely to act out.

A similar backlash exists regarding race. For years, schools have been under pressure to address racism in their systems and to teach it in their curriculums, pressure that intensified after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Many districts responded, and that opened them up to countervailing pressures from those who find schools overly focused on race.

Some high-profile boosters of public education are optimistic that schools can move past this moment. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona last week promised, “It will get better.” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said, “If we can rebuild community-education relations, if we can rebuild trust, public education will not only survive but has a real chance to thrive.”

But the path back is steep, and if history is a guide, the wealthiest schools will come through reasonably well, while those serving low-income communities will struggle. Steve Matthews, superintendent of the 6,900-student Novi Community School District in Michigan, just northwest of Detroit, said his district will probably face a tougher road back than wealthier nearby districts that are, for instance, able to pay teachers more.

“Resource issues. Trust issues. De-professionalization of teaching is making it harder to recruit teachers,” he said. “A big part of me believes schools are in a long-term crisis.”

Valerie Strauss contributed to this report.

The pandemic’s impact on education

The latest: Updated coronavirus booster shots are now available for children as young as 5 . To date, more than 10.5 million children have lost one or both parents or caregivers during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the classroom: Amid a teacher shortage, states desperate to fill teaching jobs have relaxed job requirements as staffing crises rise in many schools . American students’ test scores have even plummeted to levels unseen for decades. One D.C. school is using COVID relief funds to target students on the verge of failure .

Higher education: College and university enrollment is nowhere near pandemic level, experts worry. ACT and SAT testing have rebounded modestly since the massive disruptions early in the coronavirus pandemic, and many colleges are also easing mask rules .

DMV news: Most of Prince George’s students are scoring below grade level on district tests. D.C. Public School’s new reading curriculum is designed to help improve literacy among the city’s youngest readers.

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Remote learning turned spotlight on gaps in resources, funding, and tech — but also offered hints on reform


“Unequal” is a multipart series highlighting the work of Harvard faculty, staff, students, alumni, and researchers on issues of race and inequality across the U.S. This part looks at how the pandemic called attention to issues surrounding the racial achievement gap in America.

The pandemic has disrupted education nationwide, turning a spotlight on existing racial and economic disparities, and creating the potential for a lost generation. Even before the outbreak, students in vulnerable communities — particularly predominately Black, Indigenous, and other majority-minority areas — were already facing inequality in everything from resources (ranging from books to counselors) to student-teacher ratios and extracurriculars.

The additional stressors of systemic racism and the trauma induced by poverty and violence, both cited as aggravating health and wellness as at a Weatherhead Institute panel , pose serious obstacles to learning as well. “Before the pandemic, children and families who are marginalized were living under such challenging conditions that it made it difficult for them to get a high-quality education,” said Paul Reville, founder and director of the Education Redesign Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (GSE).

Educators hope that the may triggers a broader conversation about reform and renewed efforts to narrow the longstanding racial achievement gap. They say that research shows virtually all of the nation’s schoolchildren have fallen behind, with students of color having lost the most ground, particularly in math. They also note that the full-time reopening of schools presents opportunities to introduce changes and that some of the lessons from remote learning, particularly in the area of technology, can be put to use to help students catch up from the pandemic as well as to begin to level the playing field.

The disparities laid bare by the COVID-19 outbreak became apparent from the first shutdowns. “The good news, of course, is that many schools were very fast in finding all kinds of ways to try to reach kids,” said Fernando M. Reimers , Ford Foundation Professor of the Practice in International Education and director of GSE’s Global Education Innovation Initiative and International Education Policy Program. He cautioned, however, that “those arrangements don’t begin to compare with what we’re able to do when kids could come to school, and they are particularly deficient at reaching the most vulnerable kids.” In addition, it turned out that many students simply lacked access.

“We’re beginning to understand that technology is a basic right. You cannot participate in society in the 21st century without access to it,” says Fernando Reimers of the Graduate School of Education.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard file photo

The rate of limited digital access for households was at 42 percent during last spring’s shutdowns, before drifting down to about 31 percent this fall, suggesting that school districts improved their adaptation to remote learning, according to an analysis by the UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge of U.S. Census data. (Indeed, Education Week and other sources reported that school districts around the nation rushed to hand out millions of laptops, tablets, and Chromebooks in the months after going remote.)

The report also makes clear the degree of racial and economic digital inequality. Black and Hispanic households with school-aged children were 1.3 to 1.4 times as likely as white ones to face limited access to computers and the internet, and more than two in five low-income households had only limited access. It’s a problem that could have far-reaching consequences given that young students of color are much more likely to live in remote-only districts.

“We’re beginning to understand that technology is a basic right,” said Reimers. “You cannot participate in society in the 21st century without access to it.” Too many students, he said, “have no connectivity. They have no devices, or they have no home circumstances that provide them support.”

The issues extend beyond the technology. “There is something wonderful in being in contact with other humans, having a human who tells you, ‘It’s great to see you. How are things going at home?’” Reimers said. “I’ve done 35 case studies of innovative practices around the world. They all prioritize social, emotional well-being. Checking in with the kids. Making sure there is a touchpoint every day between a teacher and a student.”

The difference, said Reville, is apparent when comparing students from different economic circumstances. Students whose parents “could afford to hire a tutor … can compensate,” he said. “Those kids are going to do pretty well at keeping up. Whereas, if you’re in a single-parent family and mom is working two or three jobs to put food on the table, she can’t be home. It’s impossible for her to keep up and keep her kids connected.

“If you lose the connection, you lose the kid.”

“COVID just revealed how serious those inequities are,” said GSE Dean Bridget Long , the Saris Professor of Education and Economics. “It has disproportionately hurt low-income students, students with special needs, and school systems that are under-resourced.”

This disruption carries throughout the education process, from elementary school students (some of whom have simply stopped logging on to their online classes) through declining participation in higher education. Community colleges, for example, have “traditionally been a gateway for low-income students” into the professional classes, said Long, whose research focuses on issues of affordability and access. “COVID has just made all of those issues 10 times worse,” she said. “That’s where enrollment has fallen the most.”

In addition to highlighting such disparities, these losses underline a structural issue in public education. Many schools are under-resourced, and the major reason involves sources of school funding. A 2019 study found that predominantly white districts got $23 billion more than their non-white counterparts serving about the same number of students. The discrepancy is because property taxes are the primary source of funding for schools, and white districts tend to be wealthier than those of color.

The problem of resources extends beyond teachers, aides, equipment, and supplies, as schools have been tasked with an increasing number of responsibilities, from the basics of education to feeding and caring for the mental health of both students and their families.

“You think about schools and academics, but what COVID really made clear was that schools do so much more than that,” said Long. A child’s school, she stressed “is social, emotional support. It’s safety. It’s the food system. It is health care.”

“You think about schools and academics” … but a child’s school “is social, emotional support. It’s safety. It’s the food system. It is health care,” stressed GSE Dean Bridget Long.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard file photo

This safety net has been shredded just as more students need it. “We have 400,000 deaths and those are disproportionately affecting communities of color,” said Long. “So you can imagine the kids that are in those households. Are they able to come to school and learn when they’re dealing with this trauma?”

The damage is felt by the whole families. In an upcoming paper, focusing on parents of children ages 5 to 7, Cindy H. Liu, director of Harvard Medical School’s Developmental Risk and Cultural Disparities Laboratory , looks at the effects of COVID-related stress on parent’ mental health. This stress — from both health risks and grief — “likely has ramifications for those groups who are disadvantaged, particularly in getting support, as it exacerbates existing disparities in obtaining resources,” she said via email. “The unfortunate reality is that the pandemic is limiting the tangible supports [like childcare] that parents might actually need.”

Educators are overwhelmed as well. “Teachers are doing a phenomenal job connecting with students,” Long said about their performance online. “But they’ve lost the whole system — access to counselors, access to additional staff members and support. They’ve lost access to information. One clue is that the reporting of child abuse going down. It’s not that we think that child abuse is actually going down, but because you don’t have a set of adults watching and being with kids, it’s not being reported.”

The repercussions are chilling. “As we resume in-person education on a normal basis, we’re dealing with enormous gaps,” said Reville. “Some kids will come back with such educational deficits that unless their schools have a very well thought-out and effective program to help them catch up, they will never catch up. They may actually drop out of school. The immediate consequences of learning loss and disengagement are going to be a generation of people who will be less educated.”

There is hope, however. Just as the lockdown forced teachers to improvise, accelerating forms of online learning, so too may the recovery offer options for educational reform.

The solutions, say Reville, “are going to come from our community. This is a civic problem.” He applauded one example, the Somerville, Mass., public library program of outdoor Wi-Fi “pop ups,” which allow 24/7 access either through their own or library Chromebooks. “That’s the kind of imagination we need,” he said.

On a national level, he points to the creation of so-called “Children’s Cabinets.” Already in place in 30 states, these nonpartisan groups bring together leaders at the city, town, and state levels to address children’s needs through schools, libraries, and health centers. A July 2019 “ Children’s Cabinet Toolkit ” on the Education Redesign Lab site offers guidance for communities looking to form their own, with sample mission statements from Denver, Minneapolis, and Fairfax, Va.

Already the Education Redesign Lab is working on even more wide-reaching approaches. In Tennessee, for example, the Metro Nashville Public Schools has launched an innovative program, designed to provide each student with a personalized education plan. By pairing these students with school “navigators” — including teachers, librarians, and instructional coaches — the program aims to address each student’s particular needs.

“This is a chance to change the system,” said Reville. “By and large, our school systems are organized around a factory model, a one-size-fits-all approach. That wasn’t working very well before, and it’s working less well now.”

“Students have different needs,” agreed Long. “We just have to get a better understanding of what we need to prioritize and where students are” in all aspects of their home and school lives.

“By and large, our school systems are organized around a factory model, a one-size-fits-all approach. That wasn’t working very well before, and it’s working less well now,” says Paul Reville of the GSE.

Already, educators are discussing possible responses. Long and GSE helped create The Principals’ Network as one forum for sharing ideas, for example. With about 1,000 members, and multiple subgroups to address shared community issues, some viable answers have begun to emerge.

“We are going to need to expand learning time,” said Long. Some school systems, notably Texas’, already have begun discussing extending the school year, she said. In addition, Long, an internationally recognized economist who is a member of the  National Academy of Education and the  MDRC board, noted that educators are exploring innovative ways to utilize new tools like Zoom, even when classrooms reopen.

“This is an area where technology can help supplement what students are learning, giving them extra time — learning time, even tutoring time,” Long said.

Reimers, who serves on the UNESCO Commission on the Future of Education, has been brainstorming solutions that can be applied both here and abroad. These include urging wealthier countries to forgive loans, so that poorer countries do not have to cut back on basics such as education, and urging all countries to keep education a priority. The commission and its members are also helping to identify good practices and share them — globally.

Innovative uses of existing technology can also reach beyond traditional schooling. Reimers cites the work of a few former students who, working with Harvard Global Education Innovation Initiative,   HundrED , the  OECD Directorate for Education and Skills , and the  World Bank Group Education Global Practice, focused on podcasts to reach poor students in Colombia.

They began airing their math and Spanish lessons via the WhatsApp app, which was widely accessible. “They were so humorous that within a week, everyone was listening,” said Reimers. Soon, radio stations and other platforms began airing the 10-minute lessons, reaching not only children who were not in school, but also their adult relatives.

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Public education, democracy, and the future of America

  • Deep Read ( 9 Min. )
  • By Peter Grier Staff writer
  • Chelsea Sheasley Staff writer

June 8, 2022

From the beginning of the American republic, some Founding Fathers pushed for the establishment of an institution they thought crucial to the success of democracy: public education.

Self-government would require informed citizens, they felt. Important decisions would be in the hands of farmers and tradesmen, not courts and kings.

Why We Wrote This

Do Americans agree anymore that public education is fundamental to democracy? Part 1 in a series.

Do today’s Americans agree on the importance of common schoolhouses?

Many say they do. Public schools remain the foundation of the education of all but perhaps 13% of the student population. Polls show a majority of citizens generally give high marks to their local schools and teachers.

But the pandemic years, preceded by a decline in the teaching of civics education, have taken a toll on both the quality of the learning and the training of the citizenry. Where does that leave the vision the Founding Fathers had for a democracy dependent on an informed public?

Discussing controversial subjects is a learned skill, says Johns Hopkins Professor Ashley Berner. Teachers can foster an open climate for civil disagreement that does not threaten students’ identity. 

“Civic tolerance is a learned behavior,” she says. “We do not come by it naturally.” 

Self-government would require informed citizens, they felt. Important decisions would be in the hands of farmers and tradesmen, not courts and kings. 

That meant the nation’s youth – the citizens of tomorrow – needed to learn the history and operation of republics. They needed practice disagreeing, debating, and then moving forward together, whether their views won or lost.

The “prospect of [a] permanent union” depended on education in the science of government, said George Washington . “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people,” said John Adams . “Above all things ... the education of the common people [should] be attended to,” said Thomas Jefferson .

Do today’s Americans agree on the importance of common schoolhouses? Do they hold anymore that public education is fundamental to U.S. democracy? 

Many say they do. Polls show a majority of citizens generally give high marks to their local public schools and teachers. The vast majority of American children attend public schools for primary and secondary education. 

But the pandemic years have been tough on public schools. Remote learning and physical isolation have taken a toll on test scores and driven many students out of the system altogether. The inequality in outcomes between rich and poor school districts has gotten worse.

Meanwhile, the nation’s political culture wars have elbowed their way into the classroom, as parents and administrators argue over issues dealing with gender, race, and basic U.S. history. The sort of civics education that directly teaches democratic principles and practice is getting squeezed out as curricula focus on preparing students for jobs and college.

The nation’s public schools are at a “turning point,” says Carl Hermanns, clinical associate professor at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Arizona State University, and co-editor of the book “Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy.”

article about public education

Their status quo has been upended. They can seize the opportunity to improve and reinvent themselves. Or it is possible that the public education system may not survive in its present form.

“If it atomizes and ... public schools as we know them don’t exist anymore, what will happen is an open question,” says Professor Hermanns.

“One of the two foundational elements”

Citizens could certainly participate in democracy without public education. But public schools in the United States remain the foundation of the education of all but perhaps 13% of the student population, who attend private school or are home-schooled. And study after study has shown that the more education people have, the more they vote, and the more they participate in a nation’s political life. 

There are some indications that year by year, education simply increases the general feeling that voting is a social and civic norm, the right thing to do.

“American public education is one of the two foundational elements of our democracy. The other is the ballot itself,” says Derek W. Black, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law and author of “Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy.”

At the time of the American Revolution, elites remained nervous about opening up participation in choosing leaders to the common people, fearful that their participation would lead to mob rule and the rise of hucksters.

To many of the founders, schooling was the answer. Intelligent exercise of the franchise would hold democracy together.  

“They believed that there was a common good, and that they’d find the common good together, through education,” says Professor Black.

That doesn’t mean public education was widespread in America from 1787 on. Despite the visions of Adams, Jefferson, and others, education in the early years of the nation was mostly limited to well-off white men – as was voting.

There are a lot of startup costs in the establishment of a school system, and many attempts to expand schooling foundered on the expense. In 1817, Jefferson proposed in his home state of Virginia to establish taxpayer-supported schools in every 5 or so square miles, teaching classical, European, and American history, as well as reading and arithmetic.

Jefferson’s effort did not pass. It took centuries for the vision of widespread public schools to be fully realized. Like voting rights, school rights grew step by step. At first limited to well-off white men, they expanded into lower incomes, other races, and women – sometimes sliding back, but by the civil rights era of the 1960s promised to all. 

“You’ve got to have everybody educated from all walks of life in order for this [democracy] to work,” says William Mathis, senior policy adviser at the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado. 

Shift from civics to job preparation

Civics education was an integral part of most public school curricula in the middle to later years of the 20th century. Teachers had the time and flexibility to dwell on more than just the basics of U.S. history and the structure of democratic government. 

Yet the teaching of those subjects has “eroded” over the last 50 years, says the 2021 report from  Educating for American Democracy  (EAD), a diverse group of educators and scholars, partially funded by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities, that is worried about this decline.

article about public education

Across that same five-decade time period, partisan and philosophical polarization in the U.S. has increased, says the group. Social media and partisan news outlets have pumped dangerous amounts of political misinformation into the nation’s discourse. The public in essence may have lost the thread, with the majority functionally illiterate about our constitutional principles, according to the EAD report .

To this point, a 2017 survey  by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only about 25% of Americans could correctly name all three branches of the U.S. government. One-third couldn’t name any branch of the government at all. Four years later, the Annenberg survey found that the number of Americans who could name all three branches had risen to 56%, and that 20% couldn’t name any branch at all.

“The relative neglect of civic education in the past half-century is one important cause of our civic and political dysfunction,” concludes the EAD report.

Why the slide in civics? Education experts say U.S. schools have been reoriented to focus on getting students ready to participate in the economy. 

Thus, the rise of STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math – education. The Sputnik panic of 1957, when the nation was gripped by fear it was falling behind the Soviet Union in technical skills, has never completely abated. Studies still bemoan how U.S. children lag in math and science. Parents see STEM programs as gateways for better opportunity for their kids.

There is greater focus today on getting secondary students ready for college. Test-based educational reform has narrowed the focus of schools to narrower lesson plans focused on math and reading, lest their scores slide.

Amid all these pressures social studies, history, and other humanities topics have all become lower priorities. Government studies has often been de-emphasized.

“We have to remind ourselves over and over again that the whole point of compulsory free public education was to make citizens, was to produce people capable of self-government, and I think we forgot that because we talk [a lot about] the other two C’s ... career and college,” says Eric Liu, executive director of the Citizenship and American Identity Program at the Aspen Institute, and CEO and co-founder of Citizen University.

“Coming together in a shared space”

But public schools don’t just teach democratic habits through instruction, say their proponents. By their very design, American school systems are intended to model democracy, throwing together children from many walks of life in a single place for a common endeavor. They are supposed to learn people’s differences and other points of view.

“It’s a place where people from different backgrounds – and I mean everything from race and gender to religion and economics and general ideologies and different values – where people are all coming together in a shared space ... to see and value what it means to be an American,” says Sarah Stitzlein, professor of education at the University of Cincinnati and co-editor of the journal Democracy & Education. 

article about public education

But this communal aspect of public schools has faced challenges in recent years. To begin with, the pandemic too often physically isolated students, keeping them from the interactions that help them learn about each other. It drove down the overall number of students as well. About 1.3 million students have left public school systems since the pandemic began in 2020, according to one national survey. All but a handful of states have experienced enrollment declines over that period.

In addition, the culture wars have come for the schools, with state legislators and governors moving to control what can and can’t be taught about America’s racial history and sexism. Since January of last year, 42 states have introduced bills or taken other action that would circumscribe teaching on these sensitive subjects, according to a database maintained by Education Week . Seventeen of these states have imposed their bans.

This all takes place in the context of continued pressure from advocates of sweeping change in the way the nation educates its children to de-emphasize traditional public schools and greatly expand the use of charter and private schools.

Such radical decentralization would greatly affect the democracy-building mission of the public schools, say experts who support the traditional system. Among other things, it might expose students to less social and cultural diversity.

“I think the idea of ‘go find a better school that better matches your views to tone down the culture war’ is a huge danger to our society and to democracy,” says Dr. Hermanns.

But public schools really aren’t civic melting pots, say some right-leaning education analysts. They tend to be monolithic, segregated racially and socially, because they reflect the demographics of American communities.

And public schools are not alone in their ability to teach fundamentals of democratic involvement, says Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and co-editor of “How To Educate an American: The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools.”

There’s evidence that private schools and charters “take their civic responsibility just as seriously as traditional public schools,” he says. 

Needed: a shared conversation

More time devoted to teaching civics, social studies, and U.S. and world history. More emphasis on structured discussions and debate.

Those are the basic moves that scholars of democracy and education support to help strengthen schools’ role in developing citizens.

As to what specifically should be taught, there is far less consensus. 

The bipartisan EAD effort does not lay out a specific curriculum. Instead it identifies categories that students should explore in discussions, from America’s role in the world in its history, to the nation’s social and institutional transformation over time, and the basics of civic participation.

“Fraught though the terrain is, America urgently needs a shared, national conversation about what is most important to teach in American history and civics, how to teach it, and above all, why,” says the EAD report.

One tool that might help students build their civic capacity is a sustained practice with meaningful disagreement in the classroom , says Ashley Berner, an associate professor and director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy.

Discussing controversial subjects is a learned skill, says Professor Berner. Teachers can foster an open climate for civil disagreement that does not threaten students’ identity. 

“Civic tolerance is a learned behavior. We do not come by it naturally,” she says.

Professor Berner also favors pluralist educational systems , in which government funds a wide variety of schools, including religious schools, but maintains control over teaching standards, curriculum, and assessments.

Such systems “are common in democracies around the world,” she says. 

In the United States, education is not a federal right. Such a right is enshrined in all 50 state constitutions, but not in the U.S. Constitution. 

The nation should consider establishing such a right through the courts, Congress, or a constitutional amendment, says Kimberly Robinson, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law and editor of “A Federal Right to Education: Fundamental Questions for Our Democracy.” 

America really has two educational systems, says Professor Robinson: one for upper- and middle-class students that works well, and one for low-income, rural, and many Black and Hispanic students that works much less well. 

A federal right could provide leverage and attention to begin to counter that disparity.

“It’s important,” says Professor Robinson, “because the more educated a child is, the more likely they are to vote when they become an adult, and they are more likely to be engaged civically not just in elections, but in community service and other avenues and opportunities that help make our communities and our democracy stronger.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the most recent survey findings from the Annenberg Public Policy Center, and to clarify that the percentage of Americans attending public schools refers to the student population, rather than the entire population.

This story is the first in a four-part series: 

Part 1: Do Americans agree on the importance of common schoolhouses? Do they still hold that public education is fundamental to democracy?

Part 2: How should schools teach children what it means to be an American?

Part 3:  Are we better off as a nation investing in a system where talented students can soar, or one in which everyone is educated equally? Can’t we have both?

Part 4:  How has parental participation in public schools shaped U.S. education?

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What the Future of Education Looks Like from Here

  • Posted December 11, 2020
  • By Emily Boudreau

After a year that involved a global pandemic, school closures, nationwide remote instruction, protests for racial justice, and an election, the role of education has never been more critical or more uncertain. When the dust settles from this year, what will education look like — and what should it aspire to?

To mark the end of its centennial year, HGSE convened a faculty-led discussion to explore those questions. The Future of Education panel, moderated by Dean Bridget Long and hosted by HGSE’s Askwith Forums , focused on hopes for education going forward, as well as HGSE’s role. “The story of HGSE is the story of pivotal decisions, meeting challenges, and tremendous growth,” Long said. “We have a long history of empowering our students and partners to be innovators in a constantly changing world. And that is needed now more than ever.”

Joining Long were Associate Professor Karen Brennan , Senior Lecturer Jennifer Cheatham , Assistant Professor Anthony Jack, and Professors Adriana Umaña-Taylor and Martin West , as they looked forward to what the future could hold for schools, educators, and communities:

… After the pandemic subsides

The pandemic heightened existing gaps and disparities and exposed a need to rethink how systems leaders design schools, instruction, and who they put at the center of that design. “As a leader, in the years before the pandemic hit, I realized the balance of our work as practitioners was off,” Cheatham said. “If we had been spending time knowing our children and our staff and designing schools for them, we might not be feeling the pain in the way we are. I think we’re learning something about what the real work of school is about.” In the coming years, the panelists hope that a widespread push to recognize the identity and health of the whole-child in K–12 and higher education will help educators design support systems that can reduce inequity on multiple levels.

… For the global community

As much as the pandemic isolated individuals, on the global scale, people have looked to connect with each other to find solutions and share ideas as they faced a common challenge. This year may have brought everyone together and allowed for exchange of ideas, policies, practices, and assessments across boundaries.

… For technological advancements

As educators and leaders create, design, and imagine the future, technology should be used in service of that vision rather than dictating it. As technology becomes a major part of how we communicate and share ideas, educators need to think critically about how to deploy technology strategically. “My stance on technology is that it should always be used in the service of our human purpose and interest,” said Brennan. “We’ve talked about racial equity, building relationships. Our values and purposes and goals need to lead the way, not the tech.”

… For teachers

Human connections and interactions are at the heart of education. At this time, it’s become abundantly clear that the role of the teacher in the school community is irreplaceable. “I think the next few years hinge on how much we’re willing to invest in educators and all of these additional supports in the school which essentially make learning possible,” Umaña-Taylor said, “these are the individuals who are making the future minds of the nation possible.”

Cutting-edge research and new knowledge must become part of the public discussion in order to meaningfully shape the policies and practices that influence the future of education. “I fundamentally believe that we as academics and scholars must be part of the conversation and not limit ourselves to just articles behind paywalls or policy paragraphs at the end of a paper,” Jack said. “We have to engage the larger public.”

… In 25 years

“We shouldn’t underestimate the possibility that the future might look a lot like the present,” West said. “As I think about the potential sources of change in education, and in American education in particular, I tend to think about longer-term trends as the key driver.” Changing student demographics, access to higher education, structural inequality, and the focus of school leaders are all longer-term trends that, according to panelists, will influence the future of education. 

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Bringing innovators and influential leaders to the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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What education policy experts are watching for in 2022

Subscribe to the brown center on education policy newsletter, daphna bassok , daphna bassok nonresident senior fellow - governance studies , brown center on education policy @daphnabassok stephanie riegg cellini , stephanie riegg cellini nonresident senior fellow - governance studies , brown center on education policy michael hansen , michael hansen senior fellow - brown center on education policy , the herman and george r. brown chair - governance studies @drmikehansen douglas n. harris , douglas n. harris nonresident senior fellow - governance studies , brown center on education policy , professor and chair, department of economics - tulane university @douglasharris99 jon valant , and jon valant director - brown center on education policy , senior fellow - governance studies @jonvalant kenneth k. wong kenneth k. wong nonresident senior fellow - governance studies , brown center on education policy.

January 7, 2022

Entering 2022, the world of education policy and practice is at a turning point. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt the day-to-day learning for children across the nation, bringing anxiety and uncertainty to yet another year. Contentious school-board meetings attract headlines as controversy swirls around critical race theory and transgender students’ rights. The looming midterm elections threaten to upend the balance of power in Washington, with serious implications for the federal education landscape. All of these issues—and many more—will have a tremendous impact on students, teachers, families, and American society as a whole; whether that impact is positive or negative remains to be seen.

Below, experts from the Brown Center on Education Policy identify the education stories that they’ll be following in 2022, providing analysis on how these issues could shape the learning landscape for the next 12 months—and possibly well into the future.


I will also be watching the Department of Education’s negotiated rulemaking sessions and following any subsequent regulatory changes to federal student-aid programs. I expect to see changes to income-driven repayment plans and will be monitoring debates over regulations governing institutional and programmatic eligibility for federal student-loan programs. Notably, the Department of Education will be re-evaluating Gainful Employment regulations—put in place by the Obama administration and rescinded by the Trump administration—which tied eligibility for federal funding to graduates’ earnings and debt.


But the biggest and most concerning hole has been in the  substitute teacher force —and the ripple effects on school communities have been broad and deep. Based on personal communications with Nicola Soares, president of  Kelly Education , the largest education staffing provider in the country, the pandemic is exacerbating several problematic trends that have been quietly simmering for years. These are: (1) a growing reliance on long-term substitutes to fill permanent teacher positions; (2) a shrinking supply of qualified individuals willing to fill short-term substitute vacancies; and, (3) steadily declining fill rates for schools’ substitute requests. Many schools in high-need settings have long faced challenges with adequate, reliable substitutes, and the pandemic has turned these localized trouble spots into a widespread catastrophe. Though federal pandemic-relief funds could be used to meet the short-term weakness in the substitute labor market (and mainline teacher compensation, too ), this is an area where we sorely need more research and policy solutions for a permanent fix.


First, what’s to come of the vaccine for ages 0-4? This is now the main impediment to resuming in-person activity. This is the only large group that currently cannot be vaccinated. Also, outbreaks are triggering day-care closures, which has a significant impact on parents (especially mothers), including teachers and other school staff.

Second, will schools (and day cares) require the vaccine for the fall of 2022? Kudos to my hometown of New Orleans, which still appears to be the nation’s only district to require vaccination. Schools normally require a wide variety of other vaccines, and the COVID-19 vaccines are very effective. However, this issue is unfortunately going to trigger a new round of intense political conflict and opposition that will likely delay the end of the pandemic.

Third, will we start to see signs of permanent changes in schooling a result of COVID-19? In a previous post on this blog, I proposed some possibilities. There are some real opportunities before us, but whether we can take advantage of them depends on the first two questions. We can’t know about these long-term effects on schooling until we address the COVID-19 crisis so that people get beyond survival mode and start planning and looking ahead again. I’m hopeful, though not especially optimistic, that we’ll start to see this during 2022.


The CTC and universal pre-K top my list for 2022, but it’s a long list. I’ll also be watching the Supreme Court’s ruling on vouchers in Carson v. Makin , how issues like critical race theory and detracking play into the 2022 elections, and whether we start to see more signs of school/district innovation in response to COVID-19 and the recovery funds that followed.


Electoral dynamics will affect several important issues: the selection of state superintendents; the use of American Rescue Plan funds; the management of safe return to in-person learning for students; the integration of racial justice and diversity into curriculum; the growth of charter schools; and, above all, the extent to which education issues are leveraged to polarize rather than heal the growing divisions among the American public.

Early Childhood Education Education Policy Higher Education

Governance Studies

Brown Center on Education Policy

Vanessa Williamson

April 29, 2024

Sopiko Beriashvili, Michael Trucano

April 26, 2024

Richard V. Reeves, Ember Smith

Report | Budget, Taxes, and Public Investment

Public education funding in the U.S. needs an overhaul : How a larger federal role would boost equity and shield children from disinvestment during downturns

Report • By Sylvia Allegretto , Emma García , and Elaine Weiss • July 12, 2022

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Education funding in the United States relies primarily on state and local resources, with just a tiny share of total revenues allotted by the federal government. Most analyses of the primary school finance metrics—equity, adequacy, effort, and sufficiency—raise serious questions about whether the existing system is living up to the ideal of providing a sound education equitably to all children at all times. Districts in high-poverty areas, which serve larger shares of students of color, get less funding per student than districts in low-poverty areas, which predominantly serve white students, highlighting the system’s inequity. School districts in general—but especially those in high-poverty areas—are not spending enough to achieve national average test scores, which is an established benchmark for assessing adequacy. Efforts states make to invest in education vary significantly. And the system is ill-prepared to adapt to unexpected emergencies.

These challenges are magnified during and after recessions. Following the Great Recession that began in December 2007, per-student education revenues plummeted and did not return to pre-recession levels for about eight years. The recovery in per-student revenues was even slower in high-poverty districts. This report combines new data on funding for states and for districts by school district poverty level, and over time, with evidence documenting the positive impacts of increasing investment in education to make a case for overhauling the school finance system. It calls for reforms that would ensure a larger role for the federal government to establish a robust, stable, and consistent school funding plan that channels sufficient additional resources to less affluent students in good times and bad. Furthermore, spending on public education should be retooled as an economic stabilizer, with increases automatically kicking in during recessions. Such a program would greatly mitigate cuts to public education as budgets are depleted, and also spur aggregate demand to give the economy a needed boost.

Following are key findings from the report:

Our current system for funding public schools shortchanges students, particularly low-income students. Education funding generally is inadequate and inequitable; It relies too heavily on state and local resources (particularly property tax revenues); the federal government plays a small and an insufficient role; funding levels vary widely across states; and high-poverty districts get less funding per student than low-poverty districts.

Those problems are magnified during and after recessions. Funding inadequacies and inequities tend to be aggravated when there is an economic downturn, which typically translates into problems that persist well after recovery is underway. After the 2007 onset of the Great Recession, for example, funding fell, and it took until 2015–2016, on average, to return to their pre-recession per-student revenue and spending levels. For high-poverty school districts, it took even longer—until 2016–2017—to rebound to their pre-recession revenue levels. And even after catching up with pre-recession levels, revenue levels in high-poverty districts lag behind the per-student funding in low-poverty districts. The general, long-standing funding inadequacies and inequities combined with the worsening of these problems during and in the aftermath of recessions have both short- and long-term repercussions that are costly for the students as well as for the country.

Increased federal spending on education after recessions helps mitigate funding shortfalls and inequities. Without increased federal education spending after recessions, school districts would suffer from an even greater decline in funding and even wider gaps between funding flowing to low-poverty and high-poverty districts.

Increased spending on education could help boost economic recovery. While Congress has enacted one-time education spending increases in difficult economic times, spending on public education should be considered one of the automatic stabilizers in our economic policy toolkit, designed to automatically increase and thus spur aggregate demand when private spending falls. Deployed this way, education spending becomes part of a set of large, broadly distributed programs that are countercyclical, i.e., designed to kick in when the economy overall is contracting and thus stave off or lessen the severity of a downturn. Along with other automatic stabilizers such as unemployment insurance, education spending thus would provide a stimulus to boost economic recovery.

We need an overhaul of the school finance system, with reforms ensuring a larger role for the federal government. In light of the concerns outlined in this report, policymakers must think differently both about school funding overall and about school funding during recessions. Public education is a public good, and as noted in this report, one that helps to stabilize the entire economy at critical points. Therefore, public spending on education should be treated as the public investment it is. While we leave it to policymakers to design specific reforms, we recommend an increased role for the federal government grounded in substantial, well targeted, consistent investment in the children who are our future, the professionals who help these children attain that future, and the environments in which they work. To establish a robust, stable, and consistent school funding plan that supports all children, investments need to be proportional to the size of the problems and to the societal and economic importance of the sector.


The hope for the public education system in the United States is to provide a sound education equitably to all children regardless of where they live or into which families they are born. However, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed four interrelated, long-standing realities of U.S. public education funding that have long made that excellent, equitable education system impossible to achieve. First, inadequate levels of funding leave too many students unable to reach established performance benchmarks. Second, school funding is inequitable, with low-income students often and communities of color consistently lacking resources they need to meet their needs. Third, the level of funding reflects an overall underinvestment in education—that is, the U.S. is not spending as much as it could afford to spend in normal times. Fourth, given that educational investments are not sufficient across many districts even during normal times, schools are unable to make preparations to cope with emergencies or other unexpected circumstances. An added, less known feature is that economic downturns make all four of these problems worse. Downturns exacerbate funding inadequacies, inequities, underinvestment, and unpreparedness, causing cumulative harm to students, communities, and the public education system, and clawing back any prior progress. The severity of these problems varies widely across states and districts, as do the strength of states’ and localities’ economic and social protection systems, which may either compensate for or compound the problems.

The pandemic-led recession made these four major financial barriers to an excellent, equitable education system more visible, leading to serious questions about the U.S. education-funding model, which relies heavily on local and state revenues and draws only a small share of funding from the federal government. While public education is one of our greatest ideals and achievements—a free, quality education for every child regardless of means and background—the U.S. educational system is in need of significant improvements.

As the report will show, the core barriers to delivering universally excellent U.S. public education for all children—funding inadequacies and inequities that are exacerbated during tough economic times—were present in the system from the very start. They are the outcomes of a funding system that is shaped by many layers of policies and legal decisions at the local, state, and federal levels, creating widespread disparities in school finance realities across the thousands of districts across the country in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. This complex funding puzzle speaks to the need for a funding overhaul to attain meaningful and widely shared improvements.

In this report, we first provide an overview of the characteristics of the U.S. education funding system. We present data analyses on school finance indicators, such as equity, adequacy, and effort, that expose the shortcomings of funding policies and decisions across the country. We also discuss factors behind some of these shortcomings, such as the heavy reliance on local and state sources of funding.

Second, we illustrate that recessions exacerbate the funding challenges schools face. We parse a multitude of data to present trends in school finance indicators both during and after the Great Recession, demonstrating that the immediate effects of federally targeted funds helped schools navigate recession-induced budget cuts. We also look at the shortfalls and inequitable nature of those investments. We explore how increased federal investments—in good economic times and bad—could help address these long-standing problems. We argue that public education funding is not only an investment in our societal present and future, but also is a ready-made mechanism for countering economic downturns. Economic theory and evidence both demonstrate that large, broadly distributed programs providing public support serve as cushions during economic downturns: they spur overall spending and thus aggregate demand when private spending falls. As we note, there are strong arguments for placing public education spending within the broader category of effective fiscal responses to recessions that are countercyclical—designed to increase spending when spending in the economy overall is contracting and thus stave off or lessen the severity of a downturn. Increases in public education spending during downturns work as automatic stabilizers for schools and provide stimulus to boost economic recovery. We review existing research on the consequences of funding in general and of funding changes—evidence that supports a larger role for the federal government.

Third, we discuss the benefits of rethinking public education funding, along with the societal and economic advantages of a robust, stable, and consistent U.S. school funding plan, both generally and as a countercyclical policy. We show that federal investment that sustains school funding throughout recessions and recoveries would provide three major advantages: It would help boost educational instruction and standards, it would provide continued high-quality instruction for students and employment to the public education workforce, and it would stimulate economic recovery. Education funding, in particular, would blanket the country while also targeting areas with the most need, making the recovery more equitable.

We conclude the report with final thoughts and next steps.

This paper uses several terms to refer to investments in education and to define the U.S. school finance system. Below, we explain how these terms are used in the report:

Revenue indicates the dollar amounts that have been raised through various sources (at the local, state, and federal levels) to support elementary and secondary education. We distinguish between federal, state, and local revenue. Local revenue, in some of our charts, is further divided into local revenue from property taxes and from other sources.

Spending or expenditures indicates the dollar amount devoted to elementary and secondary education. Expenditures are typically divided by function and object (instruction, support services , and noninstructional education activities). We rely on data on current expenditures (instead of total expenditures; see footnotes 2 and 30).

Funding generically refers in this report to the educational investments or educational resources. Mostly, when we use funding we refer to revenue, i.e., to resources available or raised, but funding is also used to refer to the school finance system more broadly, and in that case it could be either referring to revenue or expenditures, depending on the context.

For more information on the list of components under each term, see the glossary in the  Documentation for the NCES Common Core of Data School District Finance Survey (F-33), School Year 2017–18 (Fiscal Year 2018) (NCES CCD 2020).

A funding primer

The American education system relies heavily on state and local resources to fund public schools. In the U.S. education has long been a local- and state-level responsibility, with states typically concerned with administration and standards, and local districts charged with raising the bulk of the funds to carry those duties and standards out.

The Education Law Center notes that “states, under their respective constitutions, have the legal obligation to support and maintain systems of free public schools for all resident children. This means that the state is the unit of government in the U.S. legally responsible for operating our nation’s public school systems, which includes providing the funding to support and maintain those systems” (Farrie and Sciarra 2021). Bradbury (2021) explains that state constitutions assign responsibility for “adequate” (“sound,” “basic”) and/or “equitable” public education to the state government. Most state governments delegate responsibility for managing and (partially) funding public pre-K–12 education to local governments, but courts mandate that states remain responsible.

States meet this responsibility by funding their schools “through a statewide method or formula enacted by the state legislature. These school funding formulas or school finance systems determine the amount of revenue school districts are permitted to raise from local property and other taxes and the amount of funding or aid the state is expected to contribute from state taxes. In annual or biannual state budgets, legislatures also determine the actual amount of funding districts will receive to operate their schools” (Farrie and Sciarra 2020).

A quick note on data sources

Some of our analyses rely on district-level data, i.e., the revenues and expenditures use the district as the unit of analysis. We rely on metrics of per-student revenue or per-student spending, i.e., taking into consideration the number of students in the districts. Other analyses use data either by state or for the country, which are typically readily available from the Digest of Education Statistics online. Sometimes the variables of interest are total revenue or expenditures, whereas on other occasions we rely on per-student values. All data sources are explained under each figure and table, and some are also briefly explained in the Methodology.

The federal government seeks to use its limited but targeted funding to promote student achievement, foster educational excellence, and ensure equal access. The major federal agency channeling funding to school districts (sometimes through the states) is the U.S. Department of Education. 1

Figure A shows the percentage distribution of total revenue for U.S. public elementary and secondary schools for the 2017–2018 school year, on average. As illustrated, revenues collected from state and local sources are roughly equal (46.8% and 45.3%, respectively). Two other factors also stand out. First, revenue from property taxes accounts for more than one-third of total revenue (36.6 %). Second, federal funding plays a minimal role, providing less than 8% of total revenue (7.8%). As discussed later in the report, this heavy reliance on local funding is a major driver in the funding challenges districts face.

More than 90% of school funding comes from state and local sources : Revenues for public elementary and secondary schools by source of funds, 2017–2018

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The data underlying the figure.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics’ Digest of Education Statistics (NCES 2020a).

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Key metrics reveal the four major financial barriers to an excellent, equitable education system 

Fully comprehending how school funding works and how it contributes to systemic problems requires drawing on key metrics and characteristics that define the education investments or education funding. Understanding these metrics is the first step toward designing a comprehensive solution.

The adequacy metric tells us that funding is inadequate

Adequacy, one of the most widely used school finance indicators, measures whether the amount raised and spent per student is sufficient to achieve a certain level of output (typically a benchmark of student performance or an educational outcome).

We use the adequacy data provided by Baker, Di Carlo, and Weber (2020). These authors, who use the School Finance Indicators Database, compare current education spending by poverty quintile with spending levels required for students to achieve national average test scores—typically accepted as an educationally meaningful benchmark. The authors’ estimates account for factors that could affect the cost of providing education, including student characteristics, labor-market costs (differences in costs given the regional cost of living), and district characteristics (larger districts for example may enjoy economics of scale).

Figure B reveals that spending is not nearly enough, on average, to provide students with an adequate education. As this figure illustrates, relative to the wealthiest districts, the highest-poverty districts need more than twice as much spending per student to provide an adequate education. As the figure also shows, the gaps between what is spent on each student and what would be required for those students to achieve at the national level widen as the level of poverty increases. Medium- and high-poverty districts are spending, respectively, $700 and $3,078 per student less than what would be required. For the highest-poverty districts, that gap is $5,135, meaning districts there are spending about 30% less than what would be required to deliver an adequate level of education to their students. (Conversely, the two low-poverty quintiles are spending more than they need to reach that benchmark, another indication that funds are being poorly allocated.)

U.S. education spending is inadequate : Per-pupil spending compared with estimated spending required to achieve national average test scores, by poverty quintile of school district, 2017

Notes: District poverty is measured as the percentage of children (ages 5–17) living in the school district with family incomes below the federal poverty line, using data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The figure shows how much is spent in each of the five types of districts and how much they would need to spend for students to achieve national average test scores.

Source: Adapted from The Adequacy and Fairness of State School Finance Systems , Second Edition (Baker, Di Carlo, and Weber 2020).

The equity metric tells us that funding is inequitable 

An equitable funding system ensures that, all else being equal, schools serving students with greater needs—whether for extra academic, socioemotional, health, or other supports—receive more resources and spend more to meet those needs than schools with a lower concentration of disadvantaged students. Across districts, states, and the country as a whole, this means allocating relatively more funding to districts serving larger shares of high-poverty communities than to wealthier ones. While our funding system does allocate additional funds based on need (e.g., to students officially designated as eligible for “special education” services under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and to children from low-income families through the federal Title I program), in practice, more funding overall goes to lower-needs districts than to those with high levels of student needs.

Figure C compares districts’ per-student revenues and expenditures by poverty level, and shows gaps relative to low-poverty districts. The figure is based on data from what was, when this research was conducted, the most recent version of the Local Education Agency Finance Survey (known as the F-33) (NCES-LEAFS, various years). As shown in the figure, on average, per-student revenue and spending in school districts serving wealthier households exceed revenue and spending in all other districts. In low-poverty districts (i.e., districts with a poverty rate in the bottom fourth of the poverty distribution), per-student revenues averaged $19,280 in the 2017–2018 school year, and per-student expenditures averaged $15,910. In the high-poverty districts (i.e., in the top fourth of the poverty distribution), per-student revenues were just $16,570, and per-student expenditures were $14,030. High-poverty districts raise $2,710 less in per-student revenue than the lowest–poverty school districts, reflecting a 14.1% revenue gap—meaning high-poverty districts receive 14.1% less in revenue. Per-student spending in high-poverty districts is $1,880 less than in low-poverty districts, an 11.8% gap. 2 In other words, rather than funding districts to address student needs, we are channeling fewer resources—about 14% less, per student—into districts with greater needs based on their student population.

Districts serving poorer students have less to spend on education than those serving wealthier students

: total per-student revenues by district poverty level, and revenue gaps relative to low-poverty districts, 2017–2018, : total per-student expenditures by district poverty level, and spending gaps relative to low-poverty districts, 2017–2018.

Notes: Amounts are in 2019–2020 dollars and rounded to the closest $10 and adjusted for each state’s cost of living. Low-poverty districts are districts whose poverty rate (for children ages 5 through 17) is in the bottom fourth of the poverty distribution; high-poverty districts are districts whose poverty rate is in the top fourth of the poverty distribution.

Extended notes: Sample includes districts serving elementary schools only, secondary schools only, or both; districts with nonmissing and nonzero numbers of students; and districts with nonmissing charter information. Amounts are in 2019–2020 dollars using the consumer price index from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS CPI 2021) and rounded to the closest $10. Amounts are adjusted for each state’s cost of living using the historical Regional Price Parities (RPPs) from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA 2021). Low-poverty districts are districts whose poverty rate (for children ages 5 through 17) is in the bottom fourth of the poverty distribution; medium-low-poverty districts are districts whose poverty rate (for children ages 5 through 17) is in the second fourth of the poverty distribution; medium-high-poverty districts are districts whose poverty rate (for children ages 5 through 17) is in the third fourth of the poverty distribution; high-poverty districts are districts whose poverty rate is in the top fourth of the poverty distribution. Amounts are unweighted across districts.

Sources: Authors’ analysis of 2017–2018 Local Education Agency Finance Survey (F-33) microdata from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES-LEAFS 2021) and Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE) data from the U.S. Census Bureau (Urban Institute 2021a).

Adequacy and equity are closely intertwined

In recent decades, researchers have explored challenges to both adequacy and equity in U.S. public education. For example, Baker and Corcoran (2012) analyzed the various policies that drive inequitable funding. Likewise, lawsuits that have challenged state funding systems have tended to focus on either the inadequacy or inequity of those schemes. 3

But in reality, especially given extensive variation across states and districts, the two are closely linked and interact with one another. At the state level, for example, apparently adequate levels of funding can mask disparities across districts that innately mean inadequate funding for many, or even most, districts within that state (Farrie and Schiarra 2021). 4

In addition, disparate levels of public investments in education are often made in a context that correlates positively with disparate levels of parents’ private investments in their children’s education and related support (Caucutt et al. 2020; Duncan and Murnane 2016; Kornrich 2016; Schneider, Hastings, and LaBriola 2018). Substantial research on income-based gaps in achievement demonstrates that large and growing wealth inequality plays a role. Parents at the top of the income or wealth ladders, who can and do pour extensive resources into their children’s human capital, constantly set a baseline of performance that can be hard for children and schools without such investment to attain (Reardon 2011; García and Weiss 2017). 5

The “effort” metric tells us that many states are underinvesting in education relative to their capacity

 “Effort” describes how generously each state funds its schools relative to its capacity to do so. Researchers measuring effort determine capacity to spend based on state gross domestic product (GDP), which can vary widely (just as wealthier neighborhoods can raise more revenues even with lower tax rates, states with higher GDP and thus greater revenue-raising capacity can attain higher revenue with a lower effort, i.e., generate more resources at a lower cost). The map ( Figure D ), reproduced from Farrie and Sciarra 2021, shows state funding effort from the 2017–2018 school year.

School funding ‘effort’ varies widely across states : Pre-K through 12th grade education revenues as a percentage of state GDP, 2017–2018

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Note: “Effort is measured as total state and local [education] revenue (including [revenue for] capital outlay and debt service, excluding all federal funds) divided by the state’s gross domestic product. GDP is the value of all goods and services produced by each state’s economy and is used here to represent the state’s economic capacity to raise funds for schools” (Farrie and Sciarra 2020).

Source: Adapted from Making the Grade 2020: How Fair is School Funding in Your State? (Farrie and Sciarra 2020).

As Farrie and Sciarra (2021) note, states fall naturally into four groups:

  • High-effort, high-capacity: States such as Alaska, Connecticut, New York, and Wyoming are high- capacity states with high per-capita GDP, and they are also high-effort states: They use a larger-than-average share of their overall GDP to support pre-K–12 education, which generates high funding levels.
  • High-effort, low-capacity : States such as Arkansas, South Carolina, and West Virginia have lower-than-average capacity, with low GDP per-capita, but they are high-effort states. Even with above- average efforts, they yield only average or below-average funding levels.
  • Low-effort, high-capacity : States such as California, Delaware, and Washington are high-capacity states that exert low effort toward funding schools. If these states increased their effort even to the national average, they could significantly increase funding levels.
  • Low-effort, low-capacity : States such as Arizona, Florida, and Idaho are low-capacity states that also make lower-than-average efforts to fund schools, generating very low funding levels.

Evidence shows that districts and schools lack the resources to cope with emergencies

As the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear, our subpar level of preparation to cope with emergencies or other unexpected needs reflects another aspect of underinvestment. As García and Weiss (2020) not about the COVID-19 pandemic, “Our public education system was not built, nor prepared, to cope with a situation like this—we lack the structures to sustain effective teaching and learning during the shutdown and to provide the safety net supports that many children receive in school.”

Whether due to lack of resources, planning, or other factors, districts, schools, and educators struggled to adapt to the pandemic’s requirements for teaching. Schools were unprepared not only to support learning but also to deliver the supports and services they were accustomed to providing, which go far beyond instruction (García and Weiss 2020). This lack of preparation was the result of both a lack of contingency planning as well as a failure to build up resources to be ready “to adequately address emergency needs and to compensate for the resources drained during the emergencies, as well as to afford the provision of flexible learning approaches to continue education” (García and Weiss 2021).

A lack of established contingency plans to ensure the provision of education in emergency and post-emergency situations, whether caused by pandemics, other natural disasters, or conflicts and wars (as examined by the education-in-emergencies research), prevents countries from being able to mitigate the negative consequences of these emergencies on children’s development and learning. The lack of contingency plans also leaves systems unprepared to help children handle the trauma and stress that come from the most serious events. This body of literature has also shown that access to education and services—and an equitable and compensatory allocation of them—helps reduce the damage that students experience during the crisis and beyond, since such emergencies carry long-term consequences (Anderson 2020; Özek 2020).

Public education’s over-reliance on local funding is a key factor behind the troubling funding metrics

The heavy reliance on local funding described above is at the core of the school finance problems. Extensive research has exposed the challenges associated with this unique American system for funding public schools. 6 The myriad factors that drive school funding—politics and political affiliation, state legislative and judicial decisions, property values, tax rates, and effort, among others—vary substantially from one community to another. Thus, it is not surprising that this system has contributed to institutionalizing inequities, especially in the absence of a strong federal effort to counter them.

It is well understood that the local sources of revenues on which school districts heavily rely are often distributed in a highly inequitable way. Revenues from property taxes, which make up a hefty share of local education revenues, innately favor wealthier communities, as these areas have a much larger capacity to raise funds based on higher property values despite their lower tax rates. 7 These higher property-tax revenues in wealthier areas lead to greater revenues for their districts’ schools, since property-tax revenues account for such a significant share of the total.

State and federal funding are insufficient to compensate for these locally driven inequities

State funding of public education is the largest budget line item for most states. 8 Along with federal funding, state funding is expected to make up for local funding disparities and gaps. 9 Federal funding, in particular through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), is specifically designed to compensate low-income schools and districts for their lack of sufficient revenues to meet their students’ needs. 10 Similarly, state funding is intended to offset some of the disparities caused by the dependence on local revenues. However, in reality, state and federal sources do not provide enough to less-wealthy school districts to make up for the gap in funding at the local level, as shown in Figure E .

As the figure   shows, the U.S. systematically funds schools in wealthier areas at higher levels than those with higher rates of poverty, even after accounting for funding meant to remedy these gaps. On average, local property-tax funding per student is $5,260 lower in the poorest districts than in the wealthiest districts.

Federal and state revenues fail to offset the funding disparities caused by relying on local property tax revenues : How much more or less school districts of different poverty levels receive in revenues than low-poverty school districts receive, all and by revenue source, 2017–2018

Notes: Amounts are in 2019–2020 dollars, rounded to the closest $10, and adjusted for each state's cost of living. Low-poverty districts are districts whose poverty rate for school-age children (children ages 5 through 17) is in the bottom fourth of the poverty distribution; high-poverty districts are districts whose poverty rate is in the top fourth of the poverty distribution.

Extended notes: Sample includes districts serving elementary schools only, secondary schools only, or both; districts with nonmissing and nonzero numbers of students; and districts with nonmissing charter information. Amounts are in 2019–2020 dollars using the consumer price index from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS-CPI 2021) and rounded to the closest $10. Amounts are adjusted for each state’s cost-of living using the historical regional Price Parities (RPPs) from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA 2021). Low-poverty districts are districts whose poverty rate for school-age children (children ages 5 through 17) is in the bottom fourth of the poverty distribution for that group; medium-low-poverty districts are districts whose school-age children’s poverty rate is in the second fourth (25th–50th percentile); medium-high-poverty districts are districts whose school-age children’s poverty rate is in the third fourth (50th–75th percentile); in high-poverty districts, the rate is in the top fourth. Amounts are unweighted across districts.

Sources: 2017–2018 Local Education Agency Finance Survey (F-33) microdata from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES-LEAFS 2021) and Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE) data from the U.S. Census Bureau (Urban Institute 2021a).

While state revenues are a significant portion of funding, they only modestly counter the large locally based inequities. And while federal funding, by far the smallest source of revenue, is being deployed as intended (to reduce inequities), it inevitably falls short of compensating for a system grounded in highly inequitable local revenues as its principal source of funding. As such, although states provide their highest-poverty districts with $1,550 more per student than to their lowest-poverty districts, and federal sources provide their highest-poverty districts with $2,080 more per student than to their lowest-poverty districts, states and the federal government jointly compensate for only about half of the revenue gap for high-poverty districts (which receive a per-student average of $6,330 less in property tax and other local revenues). That large gap in local funding leaves the highest-poverty districts still $2,710 short per student relative to the lowest-poverty districts, reflecting the 14.1% revenue gap shown in Figure C. Even though high-poverty districts get more in federal and state dollars, they get so much less in property taxes that it still puts them in the negative category overall.

Disparities shortchange states’ (and districts’) ability to access and allocate the resources needed for effective education

Given the heavy reliance on highly varied local funding, it is no surprise that there is similarly significant variation across states with respect to almost every aspect of funding discussed here. Table 1 reports federal, state, and local funding for each state and for the District of Columbia, with local funding broken down into three categories.

Revenues for public elementary and secondary schools, by source of funds and by state : Share of each source in total revenue, 2017–2018 

Source: National Center for Education Statistics' Digest of Education Statistics (NCES 2020b). 

Nationally, in 2017–2018, local and state sources accounted for 45.3% and 46.8% of total revenue, respectively; just 7.8% comes from the federal government. However, these averages mask substantial variation in the shares of revenue apportioned by each source across states. Local revenue, for example, ranges from just 3.7% of total public-school revenue in Vermont and 18.2% in New Mexico, on the lower end, to a high of 63.4% in New Hampshire. The same is true with respect to state revenue. The state that contributes the smallest share to its education budget is New Hampshire at 31.3%, with Vermont contributing the largest share (89.9%). There is also quite a bit of variation in the share represented by federal funds—from just 4.1% in New Jersey to 15.9% in Alaska. (The cited values are highlighted in the table. We omit the District of Columbia and Hawaii from these rankings because of the unusual composition of their funding streams, but we provide their values in the table.)

As shown earlier in the discussion of the map in Figure E, there are also large disparities in funding effort—how generously each state funds its schools relative to its capacity to do so, based on state GDP. High-effort, high-capacity s tates such as Alaska, Connecticut, New York, and Wyoming use a larger-than-average share of their overall GDP to support pre-K–12 education and they generate high funding levels.

As a result of funding and effort variability across states, the levels of inequity and inadequacy across states also vary substantially (Baker, Di Carlo, and Weber 2020; Farrie and Sciarra 2021). Notably, funding variability translates into significant disparities in overall per-student revenue and per-student spending levels, as shown in Figures F and G . In Wyoming, for example, where effort is relatively high (4.36%; see Figure E) and there is a higher-than-average contribution of state funds to total revenue and a lower-than-average contribution of local funds to total revenue (56.8% and 36.8%, respectively, versus 46.8% and 45.3% averages across the U.S.), per-student revenue is among the highest of any state, nearly $21,000. In contrast, Arizona and North Carolina—which are among the lowest in effort in the country (2.23% and 2.28%, respectively), but where state funds account for 47.1% and 62.1% of the state’s total public education revenues, respectively, and local funds account for 40.4% and only 27.0%, respectively—collect about half of what Wyoming collects per student. (Data accounts for differences in states’ cost of living; see the appendix for more details on our methodology.)

Public education revenues vary widely across states : Per-student revenues for public elementary and secondary schools, by state, 2017–2018

Note: Amounts are in 2019–2020 dollars using the consumer price index from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS-CPI 2021) and rounded to the closest $10. Amounts are adjusted for each state’s cost-of living using the historical regional Price Parities (RPPs) from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA 2021).

Source: National Center for Education Statistics’ Digest of Education Statistics (NCES 2020b).

Public education expenditures vary widely across states : Per-student expenditures for public elementary and secondary schools, by state, 2017–2018

Note: Amounts are in 2019–2020 dollars using the consumer price index from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS-CPI 2021) and rounded to the closest $10. Amounts are adjusted for each state’s cost-of living using the historical Regional Price Parities (RPPs) from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA 2021).

Source: National Center for Education Statistics’ Digest of Education Statistics (NCES 2020c).

These substantial disparities in all the school finance indicators, and in per-pupil spending and revenue across states, are mirrored in capacity and investment patterns across districts and, within them, individual schools.

As such, these systemic and persistent inequities play a decisive role in shaping children’s real school experiences. As Raikes and Darling-Hammond (2019) note, “As a country, we inadvertently instituted a school finance system similar to red-lining in its negative impact. Grow up in a rich neighborhood with a large property tax base? You get well-funded public schools. Grow up in a poor neighborhood? The opposite is true. The highest-spending districts in the United States spend nearly 10 times as much as the lowest-spending, with large differentials both across and within states (Raikes and Darling-Hammond 2019). In most states, children who live in low-income neighborhoods attend the most under-resourced schools” (see also Turner et al. 2016 for the underlying data). 11

These gaps in spending capacity touch every aspect of school functioning, including the capacity of teachers and staff to deliver effective instruction, and pose a huge barrier to the excellent school experience that each student should receive. In Pennsylvania, for example, where districts tend to rely heavily on local revenues to finance schools, per-pupil spending ranges dramatically. Indeed, in 2015, the U.S. Department of Education flagged the state as having the biggest school-spending gap of any state in the country (Behrman 2019). One illustrative example is in Allegheny County, on the western side of the state, where the suburban Wilkinsburg school district outside of Pittsburgh spent over $27,000 per student in the 2017–2018 school year, while the more rural South Allegheny school district spent just over $15,000, roughly 45% less.

With salaries being the largest line item in school budgets, these disparities substantially affect schools’ ability to hire the educators and other school personnel needed to provide effective instruction, the school leaders to guide instructional staff, and the staff needed to support administrative needs and to offer other services and extracurricular activities. As a result, these resources vary tremendously not only among states, but within them from one district, and even school, to another. 12 Overwhelming research exposes large disparities in access to counselors, librarians, and nurses, and in access to up-to-date technology and facilities. Facilities are literally crumbling in lower-resourced states and districts, painting a clear picture of the dire straits many schools face. (See, for example, Filardo, Vincent, and Sullivan 2019 regarding added consequences for low-income students and their teachers in schools that are too cold, full of dust or lead paint, and have broken windows or crumbling ceilings.)

Baker, Farrie, and Sciarra (2016) note that “increasing investments in schools is associated with greater access to resources as measured by staffing ratios, class sizes, and the competitiveness of teacher wages.” The findings presented here are backed by the extensive body of literature on the positive relationship between substantive and sustained state school finance reforms and improved student outcomes. Together, they make a strong case that state and federal policymakers can help boost outcomes and close achievement gaps by improving state finance systems to ensure equitable funding and improved access to resources for children from low-income families.

Economic downturns exacerbate the problems with our school finance system and, over time, cause cumulative damage to students and to the system

Recessions lead to depleted state and local budgets and, in turn, to cuts in education funding. Trends since the Great Recession demonstrate that it can take a long time to restore education budgets and that our practice of balancing budgets on the backs of schoolchildren is an unwise and, ultimately, costly one in terms of educational and societal outcomes. As we show in Figure H , reductions in revenue for public education often outlast the official length of the recession, lasting much longer than the point when state and local budgets have returned to pre-recession trajectories in other areas of spending. In addition, a poor allocation of resources across high- and low-poverty districts disproportionately harms students in the highest-poverty districts relative to their peers in better-off districts, compounding the existing challenges described above and impeding their recovery.

It took the United States nearly a decade to restore the national per-student revenue to its pre-recession (2007–2008) school-year levels. Figure H shows national trends in revenue per student, by source (federal, state, and local), from the onset of the Great Recession through 2017–2018. 13

Education revenues fell sharply after 2008 (and did not return to pre-recession levels for about eight years) : Change in per-student revenue relative to 2007–2008, by source (inflation adjusted)

Note: The chart shows change in revenue per student for public elementary and secondary schools compared with 2007–2008. Amounts are in 2019–2020 dollars and rounded to the closest $10 using the consumer price index from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS-CPI 2021). The Local line is all local sources, including property tax revenues.

Per-student state revenue fell precipitously between 2007–2008 and 2012–2013—it was down nearly $900 at the low point. While revenue from property taxes did not decrease, on average, other local revenues fell by $160 by 2011–20121, only recovering to 2007–2008 levels in 2014–2015. Federal funding for schools, together with the additional recovery funds targeted to education through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), provided an initial and critical counterbalance to these reductions; in 2009–2010 and 2010–2011, districts were receiving slightly over $600 more per student from the federal government than they were before the recession.

The peak in federal revenue is also visible in Figure I , which depicts the distribution of funding by sources by year . Total federal funds accounted for 12.7% of total revenue in 2009–2010, compared with just 8.2% in 2007–2008, an increase of over 50%. (Note that this increase was made larger by the reduced total amounts of revenues, i.e., it constituted a greater share of a smaller whole).

Importance of federal funding for education increased in the aftermath of the Great Recession : Share of total education revenue by source, 2007–2008 to 2017–2018

Source: National Center for Education Statistics' Digest of Education Statistics (NCES 2020a).

While these federal investments provided a critical boost by temporarily upholding education funding, our analyses suggest an opportunity to shorten the slow recovery to pre-recession levels was lost. Just as they effectively operated during the recession, it is likely that larger and more sustained federal investments would have better assisted the students, schools, and communities that suffered major setbacks due to the Great Recession. We come back to this idea in sections below.

In keeping with the discussion on broad funding disparities by state, the road to recovery from the Great Recession also varies across states and districts, with some still lagging from the Great Recession as they struggled with the COVID-19 crisis.

Research demonstrates that well after the end of the Great Recession, a significant number of states were still funding their public schools at lower levels than before the recession. As late as 2016, for example, per-student funding in 24 states—including half of the states with over a million enrolled students—was still below pre-recession levels (Leachman and Figueroa 2019). For some of these states, the failure to return to prior funding levels was driven by the lack of recovery of the per-student state revenue (for example, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, and Oklahoma). In some of the “deepest-cutting states — including Arizona, North Carolina, and Oklahoma,” note Leachman and Figueroa, the state governments made significant cuts to income tax rates, “making it much more difficult for their school funding to recover from cuts they imposed after the last recession hit.” In other states, lack of local revenue was the culprit (as in Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, and Vermont, for example). Finally, in some of these states, this shortfall fell on top of a rapidly growing student population (i.e., even had their total revenues recovered to pre-recession levels, they would still fall far behind on a per-student basis). Exploring the various drivers of these trends and their variation across states is beyond the scope of this report but would undoubtedly be fruitful. 14

Putting aside state trends and underlying causes, a focus on school districts reveals a strong correlation between poverty rates and education funding recovery. The following figures show the trends over time in total per-student revenue and spending by school district poverty levels. As we see, high-poverty districts and their students experienced both the biggest shortfalls and the most sluggish recoveries.

Figure J shows that, as discussed above, districts with relatively small shares of low-income students (low-poverty districts) never saw revenues per student fall below pre–Great Recession levels, adjusted for inflation and state cost of living. By contrast, the one-fourth of districts with the largest share of students from poor families (high-poverty districts) stayed below their pre–Great Recession level of per-student revenues long after recovery was in full swing, through 2015–2016. In keeping with that spectrum, the medium-high poverty districts did recover to their pre-recession per-student revenue levels, but not until 2014–2015.

The drop in education revenues after 2007–2008 was greater in high-poverty districts : Change in total per-student revenue compared with 2007–2008, by district poverty level (adjusted for inflation and state cost of living)

Sources: 2007–2008 to 2017–2018 Local Education Agency Finance Survey (F-33) microdata from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES-LEAFS 2021) and Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE) data from the U.S. Census Bureau (Urban Institute 2021a).

Figure K tells a similar story regarding trends in per-student expenditure across school districts. As such, it took until 2017–2018, a decade after the Great Recession had first hit, for high-poverty school districts to surpass their pre-recession levels, though they still lagged far behind their wealthier counterpart districts. Moreover, though not shown in this graph, for high-poverty districts, getting back to pre-recession status means catching up to revenue and spending levels that were lower than in the wealthier districts to begin with. (Figure C earlier in the report illustrates the gaps between high- and low-poverty districts in 2017–2018.)

The drop in education expenditures after 2007–2008 was greater in high-poverty districts : Change in total per-student expenditures compared with 2007–2008, by district poverty (adjusted for inflation and state cost-of living)

Notes:  Amounts are in 2019–2020 dollars, rounded to the closest $10, and adjusted for each state's cost of living. Low-poverty districts are districts whose poverty rates (for children ages 5 through 17) are in the bottom fourth of the poverty distribution; high-poverty districts are districts whose poverty rates are in the top fourth of the poverty distribution.

Balancing budgets on the backs of children during a recession has serious consequences

Inadequate, inequitable funding relegates poor children to attend under-resourced schools even in good economic times, and to suffer disproportionately during and in the aftermath of economic downturns. We have for far too long been balancing recession-depleted budgets on the backs of schoolchildren, in particular low-income children and children of color. This not only hurts these children immediately, but severely limits their prospects as adults. As such, this practice has broader implications for the future of the country, both economically and regarding the strength of our societal fabric, given that the students of today are the workers and the citizens of tomorrow.

Indeed, these negative patterns are just the first indications of a cascade of consequences that result from funding cuts. This section describes those consequences and their flip side, which is more frequently the focus of education researchers—the positive effects of increased investment. First, we review the literature demonstrating the impacts of various levels of funding on student outcomes. Next, we point to analyses that have shown some other associated school problems (education employment, class size, and student performance, among others) that were contemporaneous with the declines in spending and revenue. Thought it is difficult to quantify the exact and independent impact of the funding cuts on these factors, the strong correlations suggest that they are related.

Substantial evidence points to the positive effects of higher spending on both short- and long- term student outcomes, as well as on schools overall and on adult outcomes (Jackson and Mackevicius 2021; Jackson, Johnson, and Persico 2016; Gibbons, McNally, and Viarengo 2018; Hyman 2017; Lafortune, Rothstein, and Schanzenbach 2018; Jackson 2018; Jackson, Wigger, and Xiong 2020; Baker 2018). This body of research also provides evidence that the impact of school spending differs by students’ family income (Lafortune, Rothstein, and Schanzenbach 2018; Jackson, Johnson, and Persico 2016). And, though less has been studied in this specific area, the evidence also shows that a misallocation of resources and/or a decrease in spending has a negative influence on student outcomes, as well as on some teacher outcomes (Jackson, Wigger, and Xiong 2020; Greaves and Sibieta 2019). 15

A recent summary of the literature provides compelling evidence of the effects of school spending on test scores and educational attainment. Based on 31 studies that provide reliable causal estimates, Jackson and Mackevicius (2021) find that, on average, a $1,000 increase in per-pupil public school spending for four years increases test scores by 0.044 percentage points, high school graduation by 2.1 percentage points, and college-going by 3.9 percentage points. Interestingly, the authors explain that “when benchmarked against other interventions, test score impacts are much smaller than those on educational attainment—suggesting that test-score impacts understate the value of school spending.” Consistent with a cumulative effect, the educational attainment impacts are larger after more years of exposure to the spending increase, and average impacts are similar across a wide range of baseline spending levels, indicating little evidence of diminishing marginal returns at current spending levels.

Other research suggests that the effect of spending is greater on disadvantaged students. Bradbury (2021) investigates “how specific state and local funding sources and allocation methods (redistributive extent, formula types) relate to students’ test scores and, especially, to test-score gaps across races and between students who are not economically disadvantaged and those who are.” Her findings suggest that statewide per-student school aid has no relationship with test-score gaps in school districts, but that the progressivity of the state’s school-aid distribution is associated with smaller test-score gaps in high-poverty districts. 16

Other studies further affirm the implications of equity-specific funding decisions. Jackson, Johnson, and Persico’s (2016) study assesses the impacts on a range of student and adult outcomes of a series of court-mandated school finance reforms that took place in the 1970s and 1980s. Linking information on the reforms to administrative data about the children who attended the schools, the authors found that the increase in school funding was associated with slight increases in years of educational attainment, and with higher adult wages and reduced odds of adult poverty, as well as with improvements to schools themselves—increased teacher salaries, reduced student-to-teacher ratios, higher school quality, and even longer school years (Jackson, Johnson, and Persico 2016). Specifically, a 10% increase in per-pupil spending each year for all 12 years of public schooling leads to 0.27 more completed years of education, 7.25% higher wages, and a 3.67 percentage-point reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty. As with the other studies, the benefits from increased funding are much greater for children from low-income families: 0.44 years of educational attainment and wages that are 9.5% higher.

In another study drawing on data from post-1990 school finance reforms that increased public-school funding in some states, Lafortune, Rothstein, and Schanzenbach (2018) estimate the impact of both absolute and relative spending on achievement in low-income school districts, as measured by National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data. 17 They find that the reforms increase the achievement of students in these districts, phasing in gradually over the years following the increase in spending/adequacy. While the measures employed to estimate the impact tend to be technical, the authors emphasize that this “implied effect of school resources on educational achievement is large.” 18 Similar adequacy-related reforms that resulted from court mandates, rather than state legislative decisions, prompted significant increases in graduation rates (Candelaria and Shores 2019).

Conversely, research shows that both the reallocation of resources and/or a decrease in spending have a negative influence on both teacher and student outcomes. Jackson, Wigger, and Xiong (2020) find that the cuts to per-pupil spending that occurred during the Great Recession reduced test scores and college enrollment, particularly for children in poor neighborhoods. Shores and Steinberg (2017) reaffirm these findings, noting that the Great Recession negatively affected math and English language arts (ELA) achievement of all students in grades 3–8, but that this “recessionary effect” was concentrated among school districts serving both more economically disadvantaged students and students of color. Greaves and Sibieta (2019) find that changes that required districts to pay teachers following higher salary scales, but that provided no additional funding to implement the requirements, did lead to increased pay for teachers as intended, but at the expense of cuts to other noninstructional spending of about 4%, with no net effects on student attainment. That is, reallocating resources across functions, without increasing the overall levels, did not improve outcomes.

Other studies explore disappointing trends across multiple education parameters during the decade preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, including teacher employment, class size, aggregate student performance, and performance gaps by socioeconomic status and/or racial/ethnic background. Several analyses show that recession-led school funding cuts were contemporaneous with significant reductions of teacher employment. The number of teachers in the United States public-school system reached its highest point in 2008, and then dropped significantly between 2008 and 2010 because of the recession (Gould 2017; Gould 2019; Berry and Shields 2017). Evans, Schwab, and Wagner (2019) estimated a decrease in total employment in public schools of 294,700 from the start of the recession until January 2013. Gould (2019) estimated that, in the fall of 2019, there were still 60,000 fewer public education jobs than there had been before the recession began in 2007 and that, if the number of teachers had kept up proportionately with growing student enrollment over that period, the shortfall in public education jobs would be greater than 300,000.

Related to these challenges, in the aftermath of the Great Recession through the 2015–2016 school year, schools’ struggles to staff themselves increased sharply. García and Weiss (2019) showed that the share of schools that were trying to fill a vacancy but could not do so tripled from the 2011–2012 to the 2015–2016 school year (increasing from 3.1% to 9.4% of schools in that situation), and the share of schools that reported finding it very difficult to fill a vacancy nearly doubled (from 19.7% to 36.2%). 19

Although class size, and the closely related metric of student-to-teacher ratios, have declined over the long term, they are higher, on average, in 2020 than they were in 2005 (the closest data point prior to the Great Recession) in 29 out of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia (NCES 2020d; Hussar and Bailey 2020). (See Mishel and Rothstein 2003 and Schanzenbach 2020 for a recent review of the influence of class size on achievement.)

Understanding overall trends in student performance over this period helps to put the impacts of trends in these other metrics in context. We have cited research that links school finance trends and educational outcomes in the aftermath of the Great Recession, but it is worth describing what the trends in student performance looked like across the country. It should not be surprising that scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the most reliable indicator over time of how much students are learning, show stagnant performance in math and reading for both fourth- and eighth-graders between 2009 and 2019 (NAGB 2019). As Sandy Kress, who served as President George W. Bush’s education advisor, commented, “The nation has gone nowhere in the last ten years. It’s truly been a lost decade [and] [t]he only group to experience more than marginal gains in recent years has been students in the top 10th percentile” (Chingos et al. 2019).

Gains (both absolute and relative) vary by students’ background, with multiple trends visible. Carnoy and García’s 2017 research on achievement gaps between racial/ethnic groups shows that Black–white and Hispanic–white student achievement gaps have continued to narrow over the last two decades, and also that Asian students were widening the gap ahead of white students in both math and reading achievement. At the same time, Hispanic and Asian students who are English language learners (ELLs) are falling further behind white students in mathematics and reading achievement, and gaps between higher- and lower-income students persist, with some changes that vary by subject and grade. During the decade of stagnation, however, in keeping with trends in per-pupil investments over this period, these trends widened existing inequities. As National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Associate Commissioner Peggy Carr soberly notes, “Compared to a decade ago, we see that lower-achieving students made score declines in all of the assessments, while higher-performing students made score gains” (Danilova 2018).

Finally, we have also seen marked changes in the student body composition that have implications for these trends going forward. The proportion of low-income students in U.S. schools has increased rapidly in recent decades, as has the share of students of color (NCES 2020e; Carnoy and García 2017). A student’s race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status also affects the student’s odds of ending up in a high-poverty school or a school with a high share of students of color. For example, Black and Hispanic students who are not poor are much more likely than white or Asian students who are low income to be enrolled in high-poverty schools (Carnoy and García 2017).

All of these changes point to the need for increased resources across the board, and especially in schools serving the highest-needs students. As we revisit education funding in the aftermath of the pandemic-induced recession, the new structure must make greater investments to ensure the equitable provision of education and associated supports not only in stable times but also in the context of substantial disruptions and crises (García and Weiss 2021). As the analysis above makes clear, neither equity not adequacy—and, thus, excellence in public education—will ever be possible as long as local revenues play such a central role, and as long as states are the primary vehicle to address those disparities. While we leave it to policymakers to design the specifics of this public-good investment, we emphasize that the benchmarks we should reach to determine that those investments are stable, sufficient, and equitable should reflect meaningful, consistent advances for the highest-poverty schools and schools serving students of color. In other words, when the impacts of recessions no longer fall on the backs of our most vulnerable children, we will know that we are moving in the right direction.

Public education funding could also be deployed quickly to boost the economy and serve as an automatic stabilizer

The practice of cutting school funding during recessions is not only bad for students and teachers but also hurts the economy overall. The education sector has the potential to help stabilize the economy during downturns, but historically, our policy responses have failed to provide the necessary investment, as discussed in this report.

Up to this point, we have shown the characteristics, dynamics, and consequences of the existing education funding system. We have emphasized that fixing the system’s problems and achieving an excellent, equitable, robust, and stable public education system requires more funding —not just a reshuffling of existing funding. We have presented evidence indicating the need for a significantly larger contribution to the system from the federal government on a permanent basis. We have also demonstrated that targeting additional funds to schools during the Great Recession—via ARRA funds in particular— helped offset the large cuts schools experienced due to state and local shortfalls. As stated by Evans, Schwab, and Wagner (2019), “[…] the federal government’s efforts to shield education from some of the worst effects of the recession achieved their major goal.” Based on the observed trends, we considered whether even more sustained federal investments would have better assisted the students, schools, and communities that suffered major setbacks due to the Great Recession.

There is another reason for both larger investments and a more robust federal role when state and local budgets experience shortfalls due to economic downturns: School funding can be part of the countercyclical public-spending programs that help the economy recover. While policymakers and economists have long recognized the need for, and the effectiveness of, such automatic stabilizers (programs that pump public spending into the economy just when overall spending is declining), they have not traditionally placed public education spending in this category—yet it belongs there. 20 Federal funding directed toward schools during and in the aftermath of economic downturns can further boost the economy, thereby jump-starting economic recoveries.

Stable, sufficient, and equitable education funding would give schools and districts the resources and flexibility to adapt to challenges that they need but have not had during the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, automatic stabilization of public education protects students and school systems against depleted school budgets during recessions and volatile business cycles (Evans, Schwab, and Wagner 2019; Allegretto, García, and Weiss 2021). In addition to averting the harms to students and teachers described above, countercyclical investments would keep the public education workforce employed. The teachers, nurses, counselors, librarians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and others who work in public schools made up 53.2% of all state and local public-sector workers in 2019—accounting for nearly 7.0% of total U.S. employment. 21 School staff are also family and community members whose spending ripples through their local economies (known as the multiplier effect). Cuts to education revenues and employment thus also affect local communities more broadly, and retrenchment of spending acts as a type of reverse multiplier, resulting in a vicious downward cycle.

Federally provided countercyclical fiscal spending on public education set up to kick in based on defined triggers—akin to an expansion of unemployment benefits that kicks in when certain unemployment targets are reached—would have significant “bang-for-your-buck” multiplier effects. Such automatic spending constitutes smart investment that upholds public education while giving the overall economy a significant boost. Analyzing then President-elect Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which included public education spending, Zandi and Yaros (2021) reported a 1.34 fiscal multiplier for state and local government spending (the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 was signed into law in March 2021).

Because the federal government already provides substantial support to state and local governments in such times, bolstering and further targeting that support in a defined and concerted manner would entail a relatively light lift. Despite some challenges, several programs of this nature have been shown to meet their goals in their given policy areas. For example, the federal unemployment insurance (UI) and food stamps (SNAP) 22 programs are often cited as having demonstrably positive outcomes when the federal government increases their funding. Both have been heavily criticized for their structural flaws and lack of sufficient resource (Bivens et al. 2021). However, through prior recessions and the pandemic, data illustrate that UI and SNAP nonetheless prevented millions of people from falling into, or deeper into, poverty, as well as averted hunger and evictions. The CARES Act’s first allotment of the Economic Impact Payments and expanded UI benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic kept 13.2 million people out of poverty (Zipperer 2020). 23 The Bureau of Economic Analysis broke out the effects of selected pandemic response programs on personal income, illustrating just how heavily Americans leaned on these benefits through the pandemic. In June 2020, UI payments accounted for 15.6% of all wages and salaries in the U.S (BEA 2020). By contrast, just prior to the pandemic UI benefits were negligible in comparison—just 0.27% of wages and salaries overall in February 2020.

We propose that policymakers create a program for funding education during downturns that is of adequate magnitude and provides immediate, sufficiently large, and sustained relief as needed.

In order to provide an immediate response, the system must have the capacity to adapt to emergencies; a key way to ensure that is to specify ahead of time the automatic triggers that prompt launching the contingency plans. 24 To clarify, we are not suggesting that public education spending be treated exactly like food stamps or unemployment insurance benefits—i.e., that states amass reserves for a “rainy day” or that reserves be built up during nonrecessionary periods. Rather, we are pointing to the economic benefits of an education system that is robustly, stably, and consistently funded throughout economic ups and downs, ensuring that it also has the resources to withstand the downturns and the flexibility to adapt. And we are recommending that Congress establish a program that kicks in when needed, rather than waiting until a crisis and coming together to pass a large, responsive bill, which requires political negotiation and can thus take a lot of time.

Sufficiently large investments imply that the spending numbers are adequate to the size of the problem. As we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, the various public programs—even with all their flaws—have been critical to preventing a much worse disaster than the one we have experienced. 25

Finally, regarding sustained assistance, it was clear that relief and recovery spending fell far short in response to the Great Recession and was cut off too soon; it took 6.2 years to recoup the jobs lost and nearly eight years for the unemployment rate to get back to its pre-recession rate of 5%. And unemployment rates for Black and Hispanic workers took much longer to return to pre-recession levels (Allegretto 2016). In education, as shown before, it was not until the 2014–2015 school year that districts’ per-student revenue, on average, recovered to 2007–2008 levels nationally—and recovery took even longer for high-poverty districts.

In sum, while the purpose of this study is not to offer guidance on how to best design a public education automatic-stabilization program, we do argue that such a program would help public education during downturns, and provide a boost to the overall economy. At later stages, proof-of-concept designs such as Medicaid and transportation grants, and some of the existing large-scale public programs already mentioned, could be a useful place to continue the discussion. Identifying best practices—in program design, financing, and implementation in the United States and elsewhere—would help to conceive a strategy.

Conclusions and next steps

For too long in this country, we have normalized the practice of underinvesting in education while expecting that schools would still function well (or at least moderately well). We have also accepted the disproportionate burden that economic recessions place on public schools and students. These norms are very costly—to individuals and to society—and they shortchange our country’s potential.

As the data and research show, this approach is backward. If we are to have a chance of providing all students in the United States with an excellent education we must  build a strong foundation—one with sufficient, adequate, and equitable funding of public schools in practice, not just in theory. Ensuring broad adequacy and equity will require increased federal investment (to more fully complement a system that relies heavily on nonfederal sources). Moreover, federal provisions that provide for automatic boosts to education spending during downturns is critical. Our education system can and should include a countercyclical designed to help stabilize the economy when it is contracting—benefiting schools and communities.

Were we to truly acknowledge the benefits, it would be hard to argue politically against making these investments a reality. Here again the data are edifying: Extensive research indicates that a stable and consistent funding system with a much higher level of investment would generate large economic and social returns. 26

An increased federal investment to ensure sufficient, adequate, and equitable funding of public schools has an additional benefit: It could serve as another tool in our toolbox for faster, broader, and more equitable recoveries from recessions. Boosting school funding during downturns could boost the wider economy—and disproportionately benefit the low-income communities that tend to be hit hardest in hard economic times.

This proposal requires jettisoning the tendency to pit public policy areas against one another for resources, and to glamorize the purportedly efficient notion of “doing more with less.” The latter, often used to justify education budget cuts, actually entails a misguided denial of the need for resources and of the inevitable damage that ensues when those resources fall short—or fail to exist at all.

We are not arguing that increased access to federal resources alone will address all the issues outlined above. Simply throwing money at the goal of providing an excellent education equitably to all children won’t achieve it; we need to make the right investments. 27

In addition, it is also important to distinguish funding from decision-making. While the federal government is best positioned to ensure broadly adequate and equitable education funding nationwide, it is not necessarily well suited to make decisions about policy, practice, and implementation. Evidence should guide how decision-making is allocated across the federal, state, and local levels. 28

Advancing this proposal also requires that we dislodge the conversation from where it has been stuck for at least the past half-century—namely on whether the resources exist. They do. What we need to ask now is how to make those resources available, and how to deploy them to ensure that all students have the opportunities to learn, develop, and achieve their full potential—and that these opportunities are available during both ordinary and recessionary times.

About the authors

Sylvia Allegretto is a research associate with the Economic Policy Institute. She worked for 15 years at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, where she co-founded the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics (CWED). She received her Ph.D. in economics from the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Emma García is an economist specializing in the economics of education and education policy. She developed this study while she was at the Economic Policy Institute (2013-2021). She is now a senior researcher at the Learning Policy Institute. García received her Ph.D. in economics and education from Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Elaine Weiss is the Policy Director at the National Academy of Social Insurance, and former National Coordinator of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education at the Economic Policy Institute (2011-2018). She received her B.A. in Political Science from the University of Maryland, J.D. from Harvard Law School, and Ph.D. in public policy from the George Washington University.


The authors are grateful to EPI Publications Director Lora Engdahl for having edited this report and for her help shepherding it to its release. The authors benefited from Ajay Srikanth’s guidance on school finance data sources at the beginning of the project. The authors appreciate EPI’s support of this project, EPI Research Assistant Daniel Perez for his assistance with the tables and figures, EPI Editor Krista Faries for her usual thoughtful insights, and EPI’s communications staff for their assistance with the production and dissemination of this study.

Appendix: Notes on the data sources and the analyses

We construct our own district-level longitudinal data set using information from three different sources:

  • the National Center for Education Statistics’s School District Finance Survey (F-33, Local Education Agency Finance Survey microdata from NCES 2007–2008 to 2017–2018 (NCES-LEAFS 2021)
  • the United States’ Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE) Program (for districts 2007–2018, from the Urban Institute’s Education Data Portal (Urban Institute 2021a) 29
  • Stanford Education Data Archive (SEDA) Version 4.0 covariates file (Reardon et al. 2021).

The School District Finance Survey (F-33) is the source for revenues and expenditures for public elementary and secondary school districts in the country. The F-33 is a component of the Common Core of Data (CCD) and consists of local education agencies (LEA)-level finance data submitted annually to the U.S. Census Bureau by state education agencies (SEAs) in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The entire universe of LEAs in each school year and in each state plus D.C. are included. The F-33 report includes the following types of school district finance data: revenue, current expenditure, and capital outlay expenditure totals; revenues by source; current expenditures by function and object; and revenues and current expenditures per pupil.

We use the annual data from 12 school years from 2006–2007 until 2017–2018 (the most recent available data at the time of development of this research was the data for 2017-2018, last accessed in March 2021 (NCES-LEAFS 2021) , see,LevelId:5,Page:1 for updates).

We use the following variables from NCES CCD 2020:

  • Total Revenue (TOTALREV)
  • Total Federal Revenue (TFEDREV)
  • Total State Revenue (TSTREV)
  • Local Rev – Property Taxes (T06)
  • Fall Membership (V33 and MEMBERSCH if V33 is missing)
  • Total Current Expenditures for Elementary/Secondary Education (TCURELSC) 30

We calculate revenues (total and by source) and current expenditures in per-student terms.

For findings expressed “in constant 2019 – 2020 dollars,” all spending and revenue data are expressed in dollars corresponding with the 2019–2020 school year (average July–June as explained by NCES 2019), using the consumer price index from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS-CPI 2021).

For findings involving states’ cost-of-living-adjusted (RPPs), we account for differences in the cost-of-living across states by using the Bureau of Economic Analysis’s (BEA’s) Regional Price Parities (BEA 2021). 31

For analyzing metrics and outcomes by school poverty level, we link the school finance information with the poverty information.

Our preferred poverty data source is the United States Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE) Program for districts for school years spanning 2007–2018, which we collect from the Urban Institute’s Education Data Portal (Urban Institute 2021a). Census SAIPE district poverty data are available for the period 2007–2008 through 2017–2018 (U.S. Census Bureau 2021). The variable of interest is the poverty rate for children ages 5–17 in the district (ratio between poor children and total children in that age group). They are originally available as yearly data. To proxy for the school year (July–June) data, for a given school year, we take the average between the fall year-1 and the spring year.

We also use two other poverty data sources, which are linked to the F-33 data in sequential steps, for the following two purposes: (a) to offer sensitivity analyses of the results using alternative sources of data; and (b) to use the maximum number of observations possible, in cases in which some information is missing in one source but available in others.

Our second-preferred poverty data are SEDA’s shares of free and reduced price lunch eligible students in grades 3–8 in the districts (Reardon et al. 2021). This information is available in the covariates’ file, and it is available starting in school year 2008–2009 (which is least preferred because it is after the beginning of the Great Recession). 32

As an additional source checked in our sensitivity analyses, we use the county-level information from the Census, available (by year) at: (U.S. Census Bureau 2021). The information is equivalent to the district-level information, but at the county level. For this study, we use the data in the same manner (turning the year estimates into school-year equivalent estimates, etc.).

We perform the analyses using the different sources independently, plus one more in which we combine the three sources, when one is missing but the other is not (i.e., we define a poverty-all variable that “combines” sources: If Census’s SAIPE’s district poverty data are missing, SEDA’s district poverty data are used; for districts missing on both, Census’s SAIPE’s county poverty data are used).

In each case, we calculate the poverty quartiles each year by dividing the poverty variable(s) into four quartiles. 33 Low-poverty districts are districts with a poverty rate for children ages 5–17 in the first quartile of the poverty distribution. Medium-low-poverty districts are districts with a poverty rate for children ages 5–17 in the second quartile of the poverty distribution. Medium-high-poverty districts are districts with a poverty rate for children ages 5–17 in the third quartile of the poverty distribution. High-poverty districts are districts with a poverty rate for children ages 5–17 in the fourth (top) quartile of the poverty distribution.

A note about analytic samples and weights: As the school finance variables of interest are in per-student terms, districts with nonmissing and nonzero numbers of students are kept in our sample. In our preferred sample, we also restrict the analyses to observations from districts serving elementary schools only, secondary schools only, or both, 34 and to districts with charter information nonmissing. Results using the full number of observations (unrestricted sample) are available upon request.

A note about the final sensitivity analysis: Following the nature of F33 and the weights available in the surveys, our unit of analysis is the district, and we present unweighted averages across districts. Sensitivity analyses are also available using the student population in the district to compute weighted averages across the districts, upon request.

A note about methods: The analyses presented in this report are descriptive in nature. We are interested in providing a description of the trends in revenues and expenditures over time, by state, and by district poverty level. We produce updated estimates for the main school finance indicators and we look at trends in the main variables (per-student revenue and spending) during recessions to see the potential of a solid response from the system to respond, counter, and recover from economic recessions.

We conducted multiple sensitivity analyses in our attempt to verify that the data that we provide are not sensitive to data sources or data procedures, as well as to understand possible ways to further expand this research. Each data source offers significant advantages, but there is no source that can be used for all the purposes intended. Additionally, the evidence improves if we use multiple sources. We are confident the main findings hold and are not driven by extraneous factors. We do not use regression analyses in this version of the report.

1. In addition to the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, which funds the Head Start program for young children, and the Department of Agriculture, which funds the School Lunch (meals) Program are also part of the agencies that support programs or functions in education.

2. We use current expenditures instead of total expenditures when comparing education spending between states or across districts, as suggested by the agency that provides the data, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). This approach recognizes that current expenditures exclude expenditures for capital outlay, “which tend to have dramatic increases and decreases from year to year.” Also, “the current expenditures commonly reported are for public elementary and secondary education only. Many school districts also support community services, adult education, private education, and other programs, which are included in total expenditures. These programs and the extent to which they are funded by school districts vary greatly both across and within states and school districts.” See NCES 2008.

3. See the New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights backgrounder (NYSER n.d.) on Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Inc. (CFE) v. State of New York , 8 N.Y.3d 14 (2006) and Srikanth et al. 2020. Michael A. Rebell, one of the most prominent school funding litigators in the country, was co-counsel for the plaintiffs in CFE v. New Yor k , a school funding “adequacy” lawsuit that claimed that the State of New York violated the constitutional rights of New York City students by failing to adequately fund the city’s public schools (NYSER n.d.). See also Sciarra and Dingerson 2021.

4. Since 2010, the Education Law Center (ELC), housed at Rutgers University, produces report cards that ask Is School Funding Fair? (using the data collected annually, some of which we use in our analyses below). To paraphrase their response, “Generally, no.” As the authors emphasize, “The hallmark of a fair school funding system is that it delivers more funding to educate students in high-poverty districts [since] states providing equal or less funding to high-poverty districts are shortchanging the students most in need and at risk of academic failure” (Farrie and Schiarra 2021).

5. Moreover, these wealth-based disparities are mirrored in and compounded by race/ethnicity-based gaps. The Education Trust uses data to report on disparities by both income/poverty level and race/ethnicity. As the Education Trust’s report on funding gaps in 2018 reveals, “School districts serving the largest populations of Black, Latino, or American Indian students receive roughly $1,800, or 13 percent, less per student in state and local funding than those serving the fewest students of color. This may seem like an insignificant amount, but it adds up. For a school district with 5,000 students, a gap of $1,800 per student means a shortage of $9 million per year ” (Morgan and Amerikaner 2018, emphasis added).

6. Our peer Western nations view public schools as more of a national responsibility and provide resources accordingly. For example, Germany has a heavily state-based school system, France has a hybrid local–federal system in which the central government pays teachers’ salaries, and Finland’s national government takes virtually full responsibility for public education.

7. As a large study by Berry (2021) reveals, higher-income areas are taxed, on average, at just half the rate of their lower-income counterparts. Not only does this lead to structurally inequitable funding for schools, it exacts a harder toll on the residents who are least able to afford it—who pay double the taxes of their wealthier peers on much lower incomes. And, as Srikanth (2021) notes, “The study reveals structural racism at work.”

8. Funding for K–12 (21.5%) and higher education (9.4%) combined make up the largest segment of most state budgets. Spending on K–12 education alone is barely second in public budgets to public welfare spending (22.4%) (Urban Institute 2021b).

9. Bradbury (2021) explains that “the largest portion of state aid to local school districts is typically provided on a per-student basis through a ‘foundation,’ ‘power-equalizing,’ ‘flat grant,’ or ‘tiered’ program.…In addition, some states include cost adjustments in their formulas. Key attributes on which states base such cost adjustments are student poverty, English language facility, and special education or disability status.”

10. As part of his War on Poverty, which recognized the impacts of poverty on children’s well-being and the nation’s future, President Lyndon Johnson advanced the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965. This flagship federal legislation, which has since been reauthorized multiple times and whose current iteration is the Every Student Succeeds Act, is designed principally to channel resources to schools serving low-income students. However, Title I, the largest section of ESEA, was never enough to make up for the inequities created by the local–state funding system (see Gamson, McDermott, and Reed 2015).

11. This pattern isn’t at all “inadvertent,” but is a built-in feature that is part of a pattern of systemic racism and related classism that merits attention in itself. See, for example Sosina and Weathers 2019.

12. For example, in 2018–2019, average teacher salaries ranged from less than $46,000 in Mississippi to roughly $86,000 in New York (NEA 2020). However, within New York (according to 2017 data), they ranged from as low as $55,976 in the low-income Finger Lakes region in the northern part of the state to nearly twice as high, $110,000, in the wealthiest Long Island districts (Malatras and Simons 2019).

13. We note that the Great Recession started as the 2007–2008 school year was underway, so we are using the term “pre-recession level” flexibly and assuming school budgets do not immediately respond to the economic recession.

14. See Leachman, Masterson, and Figueroa 2017; Leachman and Figueroa 2019; Baker 2018; and Allegretto 2020 for some more examples.

15. Note that we are not distinguishing here between the source of increased or decreased funding but focusing on total revenues and expenditures. Roy (2011) examined a redistributive school finance reform initiated by the state legislature in Michigan in the mid-’90s, called Proposal A. This reform, which eliminated local discretion over school spending by increasing state aid to the lowest-spending districts and limiting it in the highest-spending districts, reduced spending disparities between districts, and increased student performance (state test scores) in the lowest-spending districts, though it also had a negative effect on student performance in the highest-spending districts. For an analysis of state school finance reforms affecting Kansas (“block grant funding” that froze district revenue regardless of enrollment and reduced funding in districts where enrollment increased), see Rauscher 2020. See Biasi 2019 for an examination of the effect of equalizing revenues across public school districts on students’ intergenerational mobility; Biasi finds that equalization has a large effect on mobility of low-income students, with no significant changes for high-income students.

16. Note that these analyses are based on cross-sectional data.

17. This post-1990 period, often referred to as the “adequacy era,” represented a time in which state-court decisions in multiple states resulted in increased public-school funding, offering an opportunity for researchers to study the overall impacts of these substantial increases and to compare them to student outcomes in states that did not experience them.

18. Their preferred estimates, based on the gradient of student achievement with respect to district income, indicate that a school funding reform raises achievement in a district with log average income one point below the state mean, relative to a district at the mean, by 0.1 standard deviations after 10 years.

19. High-poverty schools found it more difficult to fill vacancies than did low-poverty schools and schools overall, and high-poverty schools experienced higher turnover and attrition rates than did low-poverty schools (García and Weiss 2019).

20. Note that in this report, our main goal is to document the need and concept for such a program, not to discuss how best to design a public education automatic-stabilization program. These considerations, including specifically raising federal supports to education, have been discussed before (Boushey, Nunn, and Shambaugh 2019; Partelow, Yin and Sargrad 2020; Ogletree et al. 2017; Sahm 2019; Schott Foundation 2022; U.S. Department of Education 2013; Washington Center for Equitable Growth 2021; etc.).

21. Author Sylvia Allegretto’s analysis based on Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Employment Statistics data for 2019 (BLS-CES 2021). Education is one of the largest single components of government spending, amassing 7.3% of GDP across federal, state, and local expenditures (OECD 2013).

22. SNAP is the abbreviation for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as “food stamps.”

23. Data Household Pulse Survey (HHPS) from the U.S. Census Bureau found that 29.3% of respondents with children were food insecure in the week of April 23–July 21, 2020 (Schanzenbach and Tomeh 2020). Bauer (2020) estimates that there were almost 14 million children living in a household characterized by child food insecurity during the week of June 19–23, 2020, “5.6 times as many as in all of 2018 (2.5 million) and 2.7 times as many as during [the] peak of the Great Recession in 2008 (5.1 million).” Typically, these programs disproportionately benefit low-income communities, which are often hit the hardest, thus preventing even more damage and the exacerbation of the large existing inequities.

24. The term “contingency plans” comes from the education-in-emergencies field and is mostly applicable to international contexts, but it has also been used in the U.S. to give broader responses to crises such as Hurricane Katrina (The White House 2006). See García and Weiss 2020, 2021 for more details. The term “automatic trigger” is used to indicate what activates benefits or programs. See Mitchell and Husak 2021 and Boushey, Nunn, and Shambaugh 2019.

25. For flaws around one of those programs—unemployment insurance—see Bivens et al. 2021. Bitler, Hoynes, and Schanzenbach 2020 provide evidence for three reasons why the policy response left needs unmet: “(1) timing—relief came with a substantial delay (due to overwhelmed UI systems/need to implement new programs); (2) magnitude—payments outside UI are modest; and (3) coverage gaps—access is lower for some groups and other groups are statutorily excluded.”

26. See section summarizing the literature on the impacts of spending on education above.

27. We have discussed this point extensively in our other research on early childhood education, socio-emotional learning, and integrated student support, among others. See García 2015; García and Weiss 2017; García and Weiss 2016; Weiss and Reville 2019, among others, for guidance on smart education investments. See also Bryk et al. 2010 for a discussion on the role of context and how even after receiving funding, schools did not improve, and offering suggestions for school reform efforts.

28. California, which revamped the state’s education funding and accountability systems in the wake of the 2015 passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, offers a valuable model. See Furger, Hernández, and Darling-Hammond 2019 and Johnson and Tanner 2018.

29. For counties 2007–2019, see U.S. Census Bureau 2021.

30. As explained earlier in the report, we use current expenditures instead of total expenditures when comparing education spending between states or across districts, as suggested by the agency that provides the data, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). This approach recognizes that current expenditures exclude expenditures for capital outlay, “which tend to have dramatic increases and decreases from year to year.” Also, “the current expenditures commonly reported are for public elementary and secondary education only. Many school districts also support community services, adult education, private education, and other programs, which are included in total expenditures. These programs and the extent to which they are funded by school districts vary greatly both across and within states and school districts.” See NCES 2008.

31. For 2018: , and For Time Series:

32. Note that we obtain the minority concentration from this source. Not used in this report.

33. Variables with the poverty quartiles are called POV_CDIST (our preferred Census SAIPE district) and povall (the one combining all sources).

34. Excluded are districts of vocational or special education system; nonoperating school system that exists for administrative purposes only and does not operate its own schools; LEAs that closed shortly before the start of the fiscal year or are scheduled to open in a future fiscal year but still reported revenue or expenditure information for the current fiscal year; and education service agency (ESA) (variable labeled schlev).

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About half of Americans say public K-12 education is going in the wrong direction

School buses arrive at an elementary school in Arlington, Virginia. (Chen Mengtong/China News Service via Getty Images)

About half of U.S. adults (51%) say the country’s public K-12 education system is generally going in the wrong direction. A far smaller share (16%) say it’s going in the right direction, and about a third (32%) are not sure, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in November 2023.

Pew Research Center conducted this analysis to understand how Americans view the K-12 public education system. We surveyed 5,029 U.S. adults from Nov. 9 to Nov. 16, 2023.

The survey was conducted by Ipsos for Pew Research Center on the Ipsos KnowledgePanel Omnibus. The KnowledgePanel is a probability-based web panel recruited primarily through national, random sampling of residential addresses. The survey is weighted by gender, age, race, ethnicity, education, income and other categories.

Here are the questions used for this analysis , along with responses, and the survey methodology .

A diverging bar chart showing that only 16% of Americans say public K-12 education is going in the right direction.

A majority of those who say it’s headed in the wrong direction say a major reason is that schools are not spending enough time on core academic subjects.

These findings come amid debates about what is taught in schools , as well as concerns about school budget cuts and students falling behind academically.

Related: Race and LGBTQ Issues in K-12 Schools

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say the public K-12 education system is going in the wrong direction. About two-thirds of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (65%) say this, compared with 40% of Democrats and Democratic leaners. In turn, 23% of Democrats and 10% of Republicans say it’s headed in the right direction.

Among Republicans, conservatives are the most likely to say public education is headed in the wrong direction: 75% say this, compared with 52% of moderate or liberal Republicans. There are no significant differences among Democrats by ideology.

Similar shares of K-12 parents and adults who don’t have a child in K-12 schools say the system is going in the wrong direction.

A separate Center survey of public K-12 teachers found that 82% think the overall state of public K-12 education has gotten worse in the past five years. And many teachers are pessimistic about the future.

Related: What’s It Like To Be A Teacher in America Today?

Why do Americans think public K-12 education is going in the wrong direction?

We asked adults who say the public education system is going in the wrong direction why that might be. About half or more say the following are major reasons:

  • Schools not spending enough time on core academic subjects, like reading, math, science and social studies (69%)
  • Teachers bringing their personal political and social views into the classroom (54%)
  • Schools not having the funding and resources they need (52%)

About a quarter (26%) say a major reason is that parents have too much influence in decisions about what schools are teaching.

How views vary by party

A dot plot showing that Democrats and Republicans who say public education is going in the wrong direction give different explanations.

Americans in each party point to different reasons why public education is headed in the wrong direction.

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say major reasons are:

  • A lack of focus on core academic subjects (79% vs. 55%)
  • Teachers bringing their personal views into the classroom (76% vs. 23%)

A bar chart showing that views on why public education is headed in the wrong direction vary by political ideology.

In turn, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to point to:

  • Insufficient school funding and resources (78% vs. 33%)
  • Parents having too much say in what schools are teaching (46% vs. 13%)

Views also vary within each party by ideology.

Among Republicans, conservatives are particularly likely to cite a lack of focus on core academic subjects and teachers bringing their personal views into the classroom.

Among Democrats, liberals are especially likely to cite schools lacking resources and parents having too much say in the curriculum.

Note: Here are the questions used for this analysis , along with responses, and the survey methodology .

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The Ongoing Challenges, and Possible Solutions, to Improving Educational Equity

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Schools across the country were already facing major equity challenges before the pandemic, but the disruptions it caused exacerbated them.

After students came back to school buildings after more than a year of hybrid schooling, districts were dealing with discipline challenges and re-segregating schools. In a national EdWeek Research Center survey from October, 65 percent of the 824 teachers, and school and district leaders surveyed said they were more concerned now than before the pandemic about closing academic opportunity gaps that impact learning for students of different races, socioeconomic levels, disability categories, and English-learner statuses.

But educators trying to prioritize equity have an uphill battle to overcome these challenges, especially in the face of legislation and school policies attempting to fight equity initiatives across the country.

The pandemic and the 2020 murder of George Floyd drove many districts to recognize longstanding racial disparities in academics, discipline, and access to resources and commit to addressing them. But in 2021, a backlash to such equity initiatives accelerated, and has now resulted in 18 states passing laws restricting lessons on race and racism, and many also passing laws restricting the rights and well-being of LGBTQ students.

This slew of Republican-driven legislation presents a new hurdle for districts looking to address racial and other inequities in public schools.

During an Education Week K-12 Essentials forum last week, journalists, educators, and researchers talked about these challenges, and possible solutions to improving equity in education.

Takeru Nagayoshi, who was the Massachusetts teacher of the year in 2020, and one of the speakers at the forum, said he never felt represented as a gay, Asian kid in public school until he read about the Stonewall Riots, the Civil Rights Movement, and the full history of marginalized groups working together to change systems of oppression.

“Those are the learning experiences that inspired me to be a teacher and to commit to a life of making our country better for everyone,” he said.

“Our students really benefit the most when they learn about themselves and the world that they’re in. They’re in a safe space with teachers who provide them with an honest education and accurate history.”

Here are some takeaways from the discussion:

Schools are still heavily segregated

Almost 70 years after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, most students attend schools where they see a majority of other students of their racial demographics .

Black students, who accounted for 15 percent of public school enrollment in 2019, attended schools where Black students made up an average of 47 percent of enrollment, according to a UCLA report.

They attended schools with a combined Black and Latinx enrollment averaging 67 percent, while Latinx students attended schools with a combined Black and Latinx enrollment averaging 66 percent.

Overall, the proportion of schools where the majority of students are not white increased from 14.8 percent of schools in 2003 to 18.2 percent in 2016.

“Predominantly minority schools [get] fewer resources, and that’s one problem, but there’s another problem too, and it’s a sort of a problem for democracy,” said John Borkowski, education lawyer at Husch Blackwell.

“I think it’s much better for a multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy, when people have opportunities to interact with one another, to learn together, you know, and you see all of the problems we’ve had in recent years with the rising of white supremacy, and white supremacist groups.”

School discipline issues were exacerbated because of student trauma

In the absence of national data on school discipline, anecdotal evidence and expert interviews suggest that suspensions—both in and out of school—and expulsions, declined when students went remote.

In 2021, the number of incidents increased again when most students were back in school buildings, but were still lower than pre-pandemic levels , according to research by Richard Welsh, an associate professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education.

But forum attendees, who were mostly district and school leaders as well as teachers, disagreed, with 66 percent saying that the pandemic made school incidents warranting discipline worse. That’s likely because of heightened student trauma from the pandemic. Eighty-three percent of forum attendees who responded to a spot survey said they had noticed an increase in behavioral issues since resuming in-person school.

Restorative justice in education is gaining popularity

One reason Welsh thought discipline incidents did not yet surpass pre-pandemic levels despite heightened student trauma is the adoption of restorative justice practices, which focus on conflict resolution, understanding the causes of students’ disruptive behavior, and addressing the reason behind it instead of handing out punishments.

Kansas City Public Schools is one example of a district that has had improvement with restorative justice, with about two thirds of the district’s 35 schools seeing a decrease in suspensions and expulsions in 2021 compared with 2019.

Forum attendees echoed the need for or success of restorative justice, with 36 percent of those who answered a poll within the forum saying restorative justice works in their district or school, and 27 percent saying they wished their district would implement some of its tenets.

However, 12 percent of poll respondents also said that restorative justice had not worked for them. Racial disparities in school discipline also still persist, despite restorative justice being implemented, which indicates that those practices might not be ideal for addressing the over-disciplining of Black, Latinx, and other historically marginalized students.

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis answers questions from the media, March 7, 2023, at the state Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. Students and teachers will be able to speak freely about sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida classrooms under a settlement reached March 11, 2024 between Florida education officials and civil rights attorneys who had challenged a state law which critics dubbed “Don't Say Gay.”

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DeSantis said public schools were religious when US began. Is he right?

  • Jeffrey S. Solochek Times staff

Before signing into law a measure allowing religious chaplains in public schools , Gov. Ron DeSantis said the initiative brought Florida closer to what the nation’s founders wanted for educating youth.

“When education in the United States first started, every school was a religious school. That was just part of it. Public schools were religious schools,” DeSantis said at an April 18 news conference.

“There’s been things that have been done over the years that veered away from that original intent,” he continued, “but the reality is I think what we are doing is really restoring the sense of purpose that our Founding Fathers wanted to see in education.”

Governor DeSantis Signs Legislation to Provide Additional Support to Students Through a Statewide School Chaplain Program and Bring Patriotic Organizations to Campus — Ron DeSantis (@GovRonDeSantis) April 18, 2024

Education historians said the notion that the founders intended for a religion-based public schooling system is an increasingly common misconception. It’s gained traction amid high-profile incidents, including a taxpayer-funded church-sponsored charter school in Oklahoma, a lawsuit over whether public high school coaches can pray at games in Washington, and now this provision for chaplains in Florida schools.

The reality is not so simple, they said.

The founders did not establish a public education system, which really didn’t get started for another 50 or so years. And when public schools began, they did not employ chaplains.

That does not, however, mean religion was absent from early schooling.

“The answer is, perhaps expectedly, nuanced and hard to capture in a single sentence,” said F. Chris Curran, director of the Education Research Policy Center at the University of Florida.

Schooling began in the Colonies before the founding of the nation, and much of it was closely tied to religion, Curran said via email.

“An act passed in Massachusetts in 1647, ‘Old Deluder Satan Act,’ is often cited as the first public education in what would become the US,” Curran wrote. “Requiring communities across the state to hire teachers, the general purpose of the act was to ensure a level of literacy sufficient for reading the Bible and preventing individuals from falling prey to ‘the old deluder, Satan.’”

Schooling was not organized at that time, though. Most children did not have access to education beyond what their parents could provide, which ranged from private tutoring to boarding schools, according to a history of public education by Bellwether.

By the time of the American Revolution, some northeast towns had free local schools paid for by residents, “but this was not the norm,” according to a frequently cited history from the Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan group that researches and analyzes education issues.

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As leaders crafted the Declaration of Independence and, later, the Constitution, many had strong views about the importance of schooling and the role of religion in it.

“Some Founding Fathers, like Benjamin Rush, really did want public schools to teach children how to be better evangelical Protestant Christians,” said Adam Laats, professor of education and history at Binghamton University, part of the State University of New York system. “But others, like Thomas Jefferson, thought public schools had to remove all religious ideas entirely.”

Several advocated for a formal education system, Laats said. Jefferson and others contended that the fledgling nation would depend on an educated populace that understood their roles as citizens in a democracy.

But universal public education didn’t emerge at that time, and the founders did not establish guidance on the matter, as Laats wrote in a column for The Washington Post .

Despite their interest in the subject, the founders “had nothing to say about public education” in the documents establishing the nation, said Sevan Terzian, professor of social foundations of education in UF’s School of Teaching & Learning.

“Public education didn’t really start until the 1830s,” Terzian said.

That’s when Horace Mann, secretary of the Massachusetts board of education, came up with the “common school” concept that is associated with the system the nation now has.

“By the mid-1800s, most states had accepted three basic assumptions governing public education: that schools should be free and supported by taxes, that teachers should be trained, and that children should be required to attend school,” Wendy A. Paterson, dean of the Buffalo State University School of Education, wrote in an article for the school’s 150th anniversary.

Those earliest schools paid for with public funds “were not religious schools, although most schools opened with prayers or Bible reading,” education historian Diane Ravitch, founder of the Network for Public Education, said via email. “But such activities were incidental, not the purpose of the schools.”

The common schools, though, sought to provide a unified sense of moral values to connect citizens, and those generally aligned with the majority Protestant Christian values of the time, Terzian said: “For most of the 19th century, most of public education was implicitly Protestant Christian, and some of it was explicit.”

That caused denominational rivalries, which led to the establishment of private religious schools.

Catholic leaders complained that public schools used a Protestant Bible, Ravitch said, “and there were violent clashes between the two major religious groups. Catholics, mostly Irish and recent immigrants, determined to build their own school system, where only Catholic materials would be used.”

The focus of public education shifted as the nation’s economy diversified, along with its demographics, Terzian said. “Schools became places for preparing youth or the transition into a growing industrial economy,” he explained.

Still, prayer remained common. Officials aimed to have prayer general enough that most could agree on it regardless of their denomination, Laats said.

With the number of non-Christian religions in the nation increasing, views on that emphasis changed over time, too.

“Eventually, the rhetorical commitment to nonsectarianism was fulfilled, much to the displeasure of those who had wished to support a national religion,” said Jack Schneider, an education professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

In the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court made clear in rulings that, when allowing religious aspects into schools, government should not be viewed as endorsing it, Laats said. Since then, he added, Americans’ views have solidified around the free practice of religion.

Even if prayer is allowed, or a religious organization is permitted in a school, the same opportunities exist for all students without giving preferences. For instance, if a group like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes is permitted to meet, so too are other clubs and organizations with religious affiliations.

Laats suggested that DeSantis might be testing that perspective by stating that the Satanic Temple, which has shown interest in participating in the chaplain program, is not a real religion and would not be included .

The future of religion — and chaplains — in the public schools might still be evolving, a question for the courts to decide. But historians say the truth of the past is that public schools were not established as religious by the founders.

Jeffrey S. Solochek is an education reporter covering K-12 education policy and schools. Reach him at [email protected].


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The Campus-Left Occupation That Broke Higher Education

Elite colleges are now reaping the consequences of promoting a pedagogy that trashed the postwar ideal of the liberal university.

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F ifty-six years ago this week, at the height of the Vietnam War, Columbia University students occupied half a dozen campus buildings and made two principal demands of the university: stop funding military research, and cancel plans to build a gym in a nearby Black neighborhood. After a week of futile negotiations, Columbia called in New York City police to clear the occupation.

The physical details of that crisis were much rougher than anything happening today. The students barricaded doors and ransacked President Grayson Kirk’s office. “Up against the wall, motherfucker, this is a stick-up,” Mark Rudd, the student leader and future member of the terrorist organization Weather Underground, wrote in an open letter to Kirk, who resigned a few months later. The cops arrested more than 700 students and injured at least 100, while one of their own was permanently disabled by a student.

In other ways, the current crisis brings a strong sense of déjà vu: the chants, the teach-ins, the nonnegotiable demands, the self-conscious building of separate communities, the revolutionary costumes, the embrace of oppressed identities by elite students, the tactic of escalating to incite a reaction that mobilizes a critical mass of students. It’s as if campus-protest politics has been stuck in an era of prolonged stagnation since the late 1960s. Why can’t students imagine doing it some other way?

Perhaps because the structure of protest reflects the nature of universities. They make good targets because of their abiding vulnerability: They can’t deal with coercion, including nonviolent disobedience. Either they overreact, giving the protesters a new cause and more allies (this happened in 1968, and again last week at Columbia), or they yield, giving the protesters a victory and inviting the next round of disruption. This is why Columbia’s president, Minouche Shafik, no matter what she does, finds herself hammered from the right by Republican politicians and from the left by her own faculty and students, unable to move without losing more ground. Her detractors know that they have her trapped by their willingness to make coercive demands: Do what we say or else we’ll destroy you and your university. They aren’t interested in a debate.

Michael Powell: The unreality of Columbia’s ‘liberated zone’

A university isn’t a state —it can’t simply impose its rules with force. It’s a special kind of community whose legitimacy depends on mutual recognition in a spirit of reason, openness, and tolerance. At the heart of this spirit is free speech, which means more than just chanting, but free speech can’t thrive in an atmosphere of constant harassment. When one faction or another violates this spirit, the whole university is weakened as if stricken with an illness. The sociologist Daniel Bell, who tried and failed to mediate a peaceful end to the Columbia occupation, wrote afterward:

In a community one cannot regain authority simply by asserting it, or by using force to suppress dissidents. Authority in this case is like respect. One can only earn the authority—the loyalty of one’s students—by going in and arguing with them, by engaging in full debate and, when the merits of proposed change are recognized, taking the necessary steps quickly enough to be convincing.

The crackdown at Columbia in 1968 was so harsh that a backlash on the part of faculty and the public obliged the university to accept the students’ demands: a loss, then a win. The war in Vietnam ground on for years before it ended and history vindicated the protesters: another loss, another win. But the really important consequence of the 1968 revolt took decades to emerge. We’re seeing it now on Columbia’s quad and the campuses of elite universities around the country. The most lasting victory of the ’68ers was an intellectual one. The idea underlying their protests wasn’t just to stop the war or end injustice in America. Its aim was the university itself—the liberal university of the postwar years, which no longer exists.

That university claimed a special role in democratic society. A few weeks after the 1968 takeover, the Columbia historian Richard Hofstadter gave the commencement address to a wounded institution. “A university is a community, but it is a community of a special kind,” Hofstadter said—“a community devoted to inquiry. It exists so that its members may inquire into truths of all sorts. Its presence marks our commitment to the idea that somewhere in society there must be an organization in which anything can be studied or questioned—not merely safe and established things but difficult and inflammatory things, the most troublesome questions of politics and war, of sex and morals, of property and national loyalty.” This mission rendered the community fragile, dependent on the self-restraint of its members.

The lofty claims of the liberal university exposed it to charges of all kinds of hypocrisy, not least its entanglement with the American war machine. The Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, who became a guru to the New Left, coined the phrase repressive tolerance for the veil that hid liberal society’s mechanisms of violence and injustice. In this scheme, no institution, including the university, remained neutral, and radical students embraced their status as an oppressed group.

Charles Sykes: The new rules of political journalism

At Stanford (where my father was an administrator in the late ’60s, and where students took over a campus building the week after the Columbia revolt), white students compared themselves to Black American slaves. To them, the university was not a community dedicated to independent inquiry but a nexus of competing interest groups where power, not ideas, ruled. They rejected the very possibility of a disinterested pursuit of truth. In an imaginary dialogue between a student and a professor, a member of the Stanford chapter of Students for a Democratic Society wrote: “Rights and privacy and these kinds of freedom are irrelevant—you old guys got to get it through your heads that to fight the whole corrupt System POWER is the only answer.”

A long, intricate , but essentially unbroken line connects that rejection of the liberal university in 1968 to the orthodoxy on elite campuses today. The students of the ’68 revolt became professors—the German activist Rudi Dutschke called this strategy the “long march through the institutions”—bringing their revisionist thinking back to the universities they’d tried to upend. One leader of the Columbia takeover returned to chair the School of the Arts film program. “The ideas of one generation become the instincts of the next,” D. H. Lawrence wrote. Ideas born in the ’60s, subsequently refined and complicated by critical theory, postcolonial studies, and identity politics, are now so pervasive and unquestioned that they’ve become the instincts of students who are occupying their campuses today. Group identity assigns your place in a hierarchy of oppression. Between oppressor and oppressed, no room exists for complexity or ambiguity. Universal values such as free speech and individual equality only privilege the powerful. Words are violence. There’s nothing to debate.

The post-liberal university is defined by a combination of moneymaking and activism. Perhaps the biggest difference between 1968 and 2024 is that the ideas of a radical vanguard are now the instincts of entire universities—administrators, faculty, students. They’re enshrined in reading lists and codes of conduct and ubiquitous clichés. Last week an editorial in the Daily Spectator , the Columbia student newspaper, highlighted the irony of a university frantically trying to extricate itself from the implications of its own dogmas: “Why is the same university that capitalizes on the legacy of Edward Said and enshrines The Wretched of the Earth into its Core Curriculum so scared to speak about decolonization in practice?”

A Columbia student, writing to one of his professors in a letter that the student shared with me, explained the dynamic so sharply that it’s worth quoting him at length:

I think [the protests] do speak to a certain failing on Columbia’s part, but it’s a failing that’s much more widespread and further upstream. That is, I think universities have essentially stopped minding the store, stopped engaging in any kind of debate or even conversation with the ideologies which have slowly crept in to every bit of university life, without enough people of good conscience brave enough to question all the orthodoxies. So if you come to Columbia believing in “decolonization” or what have you, it’s genuinely not clear to me that you will ever have to reflect on this belief. And after all this, one day the university wakes up to these protests, panics under scrutiny, and calls the cops on students who are practicing exactly what they’ve been taught to do from the second they walked through those gates as freshmen.

The muscle of independent thinking and open debate, the ability to earn authority that Daniel Bell described as essential to a university’s survival, has long since atrophied. So when, after the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, Jewish students found themselves subjected to the kind of hostile atmosphere that, if directed at any other minority group, would have brought down high-level rebukes, online cancellations, and maybe administrative punishments, they fell back on the obvious defense available under the new orthodoxy. They said that they felt “unsafe.” They accused pro-Palestinian students of anti-Semitism—sometimes fairly, sometimes not. They asked for protections that other groups already enjoyed. Who could blame them? They were doing what their leaders and teachers had instructed them was the right, the only, way to respond to a hurt.

Adam Serwer: The Republicans who want American carnage

And when the shrewd and unscrupulous Representative Elise Stefanik demanded of the presidents of Harvard and Penn whether calls for genocide violated their universities’ code of conduct, they had no good way to answer. If they said yes, they would have faced the obvious comeback: “Why has no one been punished?” So they said that it depended on the “context,” which was technically correct but sounded so hopelessly legalistic that it led to the loss of their jobs. The response also made nonsense of their careers as censors of unpopular speech. Shafik, of Columbia, having watched her colleagues’ debacle, told the congresswoman what she wanted to hear, then backed it up by calling the cops onto campus—only to find herself denounced on all sides, including by Senator Tom Cotton, who demanded that President Joe Biden deploy the United States military to Columbia, and by her own faculty senate, which threatened a vote of censure.

T he right always knows how to exploit the excesses of the left. It happened in 1968, when the campus takeovers and the street battles between anti-war activists and cops at the Democratic convention in Chicago helped elect Richard Nixon. Republican politicians are already exploiting the chaos on campuses. This summer, the Democrats will gather again in Chicago, and the activists are promising a big show. Donald Trump will be watching.

Elite universities are caught in a trap of their own making, one that has been a long time coming. They’ve trained pro-Palestinian students to believe that, on the oppressor-oppressed axis, Jews are white and therefore dominant, not “marginalized,” while Israel is a settler-colonialist state and therefore illegitimate. They’ve trained pro-Israel students to believe that unwelcome and even offensive speech makes them so unsafe that they should stay away from campus. What the universities haven’t done is train their students to talk with one another.

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School children sit on a brick wall with their legs dangling over the top.

Why the Guardian is investigating the deep failings in Australia’s school system

Australia says it is committed to inclusive education. But the reality for the one in four schoolchildren who now have a disability is far from that

  • How the rise of autism and ADHD fractured Australia’s schools
  • Revealed: Private school students reap thousands more than public students in disability funding
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Most Australian parents take for granted that their child will attend school and receive an education.

But for parents of children with a disability – whether it’s developmental, intellectual or physical – that is not a given.

A Guardian investigation has uncovered deep failings in Australia’s education system, which is struggling to cope with the soaring number of children with disabilities.

There are now almost 1 million Australian school students classified as having a disability and needing some sort of adjustment to learn – a 40% increase since 2017. Across Australia a staggering one in four now have a disability of some kind.

Many parents Guardian Australia spoke to are at breaking point. They feel adrift and desperate as they try to navigate a school system for their child that was designed for a different reality.

They are exhausted from battling schools and education departments, and their lives are in chaos as they deal with the fallout from suspensions and exclusions that are being handed out by schools to children with disabilities at record levels.

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Children as young as five with disabilities are among the many thousands of primary school students receiving suspensions each year, while many others are only permitted to attend school part-time.

At the same time, burnt-out teachers report that the demand to manage children with disabilities has become overwhelming. Resources are stretched thin, and teachers feel “everyone is getting a raw deal”.

One teacher said some of the classes at her Port Macquarie school have two-thirds of students needing an adjustment for a disability – a confronting reality for any educator.

Autism and ADHD rates among children in schools are at record highs. In classrooms today, an estimated 4% of seven- to 14-year-olds have a primary diagnosis of autism , while between 6% and 10% of children have ADHD .

Compounding these challenges is the deeply inequitable school funding arrangements that have characterised school funding for many years – an inequity that is worsening despite the promise of the Gonski reforms.

New data obtained by Guardian Australia shows that non-government schools are overwhelmingly benefiting from a federal support payment that is designed to assist schools with children with a disability, with some private schools receiving up to six times more money than public schools.

At a state level, there is a patchwork of funding arrangements with limited transparency, leaving many children with disabilities without the support they need to receive an education.

Australia supports the right to an inclusive education under international law. We have a duty to support students with a disability to be educated in a mainstream school environment.

But we are falling far short of delivering this ideal. As one disability advocate told Guardian Australia: it is “a broken system, buckling under pressure”.

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These 12 Teachers Don’t See Themselves as Superheroes

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article about public education

Why These 12 Teachers Don’t See Themselves as Superheroes

Across the United States, education has become one of the hottest and most keenly felt political issues. Ever since the Covid pandemic began, governors, mayors, union officials, legislators and school board members have been arguing — often quite fiercely — about fundamental questions: When should schools reopen? What should be taught there? What is the purpose of public education? Who should decide these questions?

Once pretty much everyone was back in school — an uneven process that took place at different rates in different areas and in different types of schools — another set of questions emerged: How far behind had students fallen academically? How could they catch up? What about their social and emotional development, which also seemed to be lagging?

Nearly everyone had an opinion, but it sometimes seemed that one of the most important constituencies in this discussion was left out: teachers. As part of Opinion’s “What Is School For?” package, we asked a dozen public school teachers from elementary, middle and high schools to talk with us about teaching during a pandemic, trying to meet students’ academic and social needs and being caught between parents and politicians.

Like a lot of people in America, they were worried. “I find we don’t even have the art of conversation anymore,” one of the teachers said. “My students can’t talk to each other.” Teacher after teacher talked about how much harder the job has gotten over the past few years. “I just feel like I have an endless to-do list,” one said. “I understand that everyone should have a say,” another pointed out. “But oftentimes, there’s a lot of collision there.”

The teachers we gathered spent an hour and a half talking through these collisions with one another — which policymakers and parents would benefit from digging into — but they also took the time to talk about what inspired them to become teachers in the first place and what, despite all the difficulties, is keeping them in the classroom.

“Our school district has seniors write a letter to a teacher that’s impacted them, an elementary or a middle school teacher that’s impacted them,” one teacher told us. “And when you get a letter from a student saying, ‘I hated going to the library at the beginning of the year, but after taking your reading class and reading better, I love to go to the library, and I might write a book myself one day.’ I mean, that’s why I do it.”

article about public education

If you had to describe your biggest concern about the United States in a single word, what would it be?





My word would be “disregard.”

Mine was one that was already used — “division.”

Why did people pick so many words around “division”?

I feel like we’re going backwards in terms of equity. Whenever I look at the news, it’s always the left, the right, Republicans, Democrat. And in my head, I’m thinking, “Why can’t we all just be one?”

With polarization, it has to be “either/or,” instead of “both,” instead of “and.” We’ve lost empathy. And with that, we lose forgiveness.

I teach high school. I teach young adults. I used to teach in college. But even just within my limited experience, I’ve seen a lot of shift in attitude. I’ve seen a lot of shift in effort.

A shift in a good way or a shift in a bad way?

A bad way. I find we don’t even have the art of conversation anymore. My students can’t talk to each other. They can’t talk to adults. And I feel that that doesn’t bode well because, again, I look at these young people, and I want to have hope for them, but then I try to teach them, and I just don’t feel hopeful.

I kind of have the opposite experience. I did intervention this past school year, and before that, only elementary education for eight years. I feel like the kids now are so much more respectful and appreciative of each other, especially in the district I came from before Kansas City. It was Title I, low income. But they realized how hard it is to work for something and how appreciative they were when they got something. And I don’t think kids now, like older kids maybe, high school kids — I think they’re spoiled rotten, whereas the younger kids have — they’re just so much more respectful and appreciative. It was mostly second, third grade where, yeah, they’re little and not corrupt yet, I guess.

I definitely can empathize with Bobbie in terms of feeling hopeless. I’ve been an educator for 13 years, and my toughest year was this past year. But I have hope that we’re going to swing away from this extremely difficult time.

This is another pick-a-word exercise, a single word to describe how it feels to be a teacher right now.



I’m trying to think of a word that’s like “pulled in different directions.” “Overwhelmed,” maybe.

Also “exhausting.”



There were three people who said “exhausting.” Why “exhausting”?

I am in a school district where we’re facing the possibility of going on strike. It’s exhausting to me to come in already starting the school year where our board of education is not respecting us. And after last year and the year and a half we’ve had with teaching, it’s just — it’s so exhausting to be pulled all these different ways.

I just feel like I have an endless to-do list that’s what I have to do to prepare for my classroom, what admin wants me to do to prepare for my classroom, what the law says I have to do.

Carlotta, you said “exciting.”

I agreed with the other words that everybody else said, too, but I was trying to think of something a little bit different. And I’m into technology, and so that’s why I think it’s exciting with all of the new technology that is coming into the classrooms for students to use.

Tyler, you were trying to describe a sort of multifaceted feeling?

Kind of piggybacking off of what Laura just described: You’re answerable not only to administration and also parents but also to the different levels of bureaucracy that are sometimes telling you things that don’t coincide with one another on a district level and on the state level and the federal level. And then there are just a lot of voices because education is essential. I understand that everyone should have a say. But oftentimes, there’s a lot of collision there. And then we’re kind of caught in between with what exactly the expectations are for us. And then things kind of get piled on with state testing and then other mandates. It’s a lot to kind of manage all of that, while also managing behaviors day to day in the classroom.

Teaching’s always been challenging. I’m going into my 30th year, and it’s still a challenge. When I first started, it was a challenge to get stuff ready for my classroom. And I didn’t think I was doing a very good job. And I still don’t know if I’m doing a good job, but it’s less challenging for the classroom management part. But the other challenges come up. There are new initiatives. It’s always something new.

Dan, several teachers here have mentioned that this last year was particularly challenging, and you said that all the years are challenging. Do you feel that the postpandemic period has been especially difficult for teachers overall?

Absolutely. Last year, we finally got back to being in a classroom. The kids who really hadn’t been in a classroom for two years — I kind of think they forgot how to be in a classroom and forgot how to act in a classroom. It was a challenge to get them to focus. This isn’t your house. Get off the furniture. You can’t do that kind of stuff. You’re back in school. And we have certain things we have to do in class.

If we had done this group three years ago before the pandemic, would you have picked the same word to describe teaching? How many people say, “I would have picked the same word if we did this three years ago, before the pandemic”?

I said “exhausting,” and I’ve always felt that teaching is exhausting, which doesn’t, at this point in my career, stop me from doing it.

Yeah, I picked “chaotic,” and I would just say I’ve been a teacher for 16 years. It’s always been a certain level of chaos and unpredictability. But I would say, postpandemic, it’s just intensified things that teachers have been saying for years about workload, about support with managing challenging student behaviors, about unrealistic testing and curriculum expectations.

I feel the same way. For the most part, I feel like being a teacher is a thankless profession. And it’s something that you definitely have to want to do. Otherwise, you won’t be doing it for long. I come from a district that’s a parent-pleasing district —

What does that mean, “a parent-pleasing district”?

Students aren’t held accountable, parents aren’t held accountable. For example, at one point, they wanted to implement a uniform policy. Parents raised a stink. OK, they scrapped that. A teacher gives a kid a grade — or a kid earns a grade on a certain thing, and they don’t pass the assignment or the class. And the district is breathing down the teacher’s neck: “You need to pass this child.” Well, the child didn’t do what he or she was supposed to do. At times, there’s pressure on you to change it because the parent is over here, barking at the district level. And then the district is barking at the administration. And the administration is barking at us.

Shannon, you said you would have picked a different word if we had done this a couple of years ago. What’s changed?

When I started teaching, it was more fun, and students were held accountable. Now my middle school students come with some kind of sense of entitlement. And I don’t know where that comes from. And many of their parents are younger, and they just want to be their friend. When I was a kid, you were afraid of your parents. If you got in trouble at school, there was a consequence at home. Now a lot of these kids, they get suspended, they come back with new fancy shoes and tattoos and rewards for being rude and disrespectful.

For me, it was a fleeting thought because at the beginning of the pandemic, my district’s theme was compassion over compliance. Well, that quickly went out the window. Almost a year into the pandemic, we finished out the first year virtual, and the following year was almost completely virtual. And in the middle of our district’s Covid numbers escalating, they ordered all teachers back in the building, with no students. Well, some of us, like me, have children who are also in the district. You want me back in the building, but I can’t bring my child. And my child is a minor, and she can’t stay home by herself. If I wasn’t so close to the end of the rainbow, I would have said, “You know what? Forget this.” I just felt like I wasn’t appreciated.

I had an exit plan this summer and was looking to shift careers. This past year, the group of sixth graders that I had was by far the best I’ve had in my six years of teaching. That wasn’t pushing me out. I still love the curriculum and love interacting with them. But it was the other stuff that I wasn’t sure was going to end. Everything that we have to do on top of teaching was kind of driving me out. But I do have hope for this next year.

What are some of the other jobs that you’re performing when you’re a teacher?

A counselor, a parent, a nurse.

Technician, curriculum development. Mediator, social-emotional therapist, to some degree. Secretary, data analyst.

I’d say all the above, as well as, sometimes I’m — I don’t feel like a police officer, but I’m breaking up fights, even at the elementary level.

A safe space, the only safe space for some, and a confidante, an advocate.

A lot of people suggest that teachers don’t have enough say in decisions about education.

If teachers had more of a voice, how would things be different?

Teaching is a second career for me. And I’ve never had a job where so many people think they could do your job better than you without any training. People think they can just come in and be a teacher. Everybody says, “Oh, teachers are so valuable.” But in most states — and I’m sure many of you would agree — they’re not treated that way. In other countries, teachers are paid very well and given all these other things and revered. And here they’re not. We do need to be about the students. At the same time, with the pandemic, people are like, “Well, if you don’t like teaching, just quit.” Well, who’s going to teach the kids if we all quit?

Laura, you were talking before about being pulled a million different ways. If teachers like you had a bigger voice, how could it be better?

Well, I think the biggest thing is to let teachers be the drivers of policies that are created, instead of them being created at a political level or even an admin level. And when I say admin, I’m not talking about the admin within my school but the district itself. Really listening to the educators and just letting them drive the policy decisions, not letting people who have never been in a classroom — politicians and things like that — drive those policy decisions. Because we know what happens in our classroom on a day-to-day basis, and others don’t.

Could a couple of you give me examples of what you would be doing in class that you’re not getting to do because of the jumble of other things?

Yeah, I would say focusing more on the social-emotional side of teaching, because my kids, they come in, and they’ve been home for a year and a half, almost two years. And they’ve forgotten how to play with each other or how not to argue — just the basics. I felt like because I teach first grade, they haven’t ever been in school, some of my kids. So I really wish we could spend more time building the background that they need, even just saying “thank you” after you get something. Some of them don’t get that at home. I just wish we could focus more on that instead of so much on the rigor of what we have to teach, because if they aren’t met emotionally, they’re not going to retain anything.

As far as nonteachers making policy decisions: In my state, any Joe Blow can be on the board of education. Most professions, you have to be in that profession to be on the board that governs that profession. And that’s not the case for education. Nonteachers making policy changes and decisions that affect us — it’s ridiculous.

We talked about some of the challenges of teaching. But what made you decide to go into teaching? What inspired you?

I wanted to be a teacher because of the children. That was my big drive when I started. And that’s what I continually think about on the bad days, is, “These kids depend on me,” especially kids that look like me. They need to see other teachers that look like them in the classroom. And I’ve always taught primary children, so third and second and first. And they’re just funny at that age. Just remembering something silly that the kids did or something they said or something they said to each other just makes me smile and gets me through the day.

I love what I teach: government and history. I love the age group that takes those classes in my state, juniors and seniors in high school. I love talking with that group of kids. They have a lot to talk about and to learn about history, and we have a lot of great conversations.

I tell everybody I have the greatest job because I get to come to school and I get to play every day in physics. And I like teaching high school because the kids have a sense of humor. They start to laugh and get sarcasm. And we have a good time. I also coach and advise classes and see kids outside of the class as well. It’s just — it’s a great experience.

I had some teachers who were a great help to me in middle school. That’s why I wanted to go teach.

I didn’t want to be a teacher. I hated kids. I graduated from U. of A., was working for the city of Tucson. It was boring, and the people I worked with were boring. When my college career ended, my roommate kind of forced me to go help out at the local high school. I had fun with coaching. You can have some positive effect on kids. You see and you kind of become everything that everybody else is saying — a parent. You see their successes. You have the joy with them. But you have the accountability. And so I went back and changed my career and went back to U. of A. and got a teacher certification. And now I’ve taught 11 different subjects across 32 years.

Similar to David, I didn’t think I wanted to teach. I studied writing in college. And they say when you’re an English major, you can do anything. And I just said, tell me one thing because I don’t know what I want to do. And I loved books. And I thought — I had a friend who became a teacher, and I was like, “Oh, maybe I can just talk about books all day and have super-high-level conversations about literature. That sounds like a good thing.” And I learned quickly into student teaching that that is not what education was all about. So I went into education for books, but I stayed for the students. I don’t always get to have those high-level conversations. But once in a while, they do. The kids absolutely have kept me in it. And I don’t think I ever would have thought that. Seeing kids first in their family not only to graduate high school but to be in high school or to see them get those acceptance letters from college — I mean, there’s nothing like it in terms of being there when that happens.

Sometimes people talk about how teachers are kind of superhuman. What do you think people mean when they say that?

As I’ve chugged along in my career, I’ve liked that phrase less and less. It adds an unrealistic pressure. And in some ways, it takes the humanity out of us. It’s like we can’t have bad days. We can’t be off. We can’t be unhappy. We have to be always on. The culture’s infatuated with superheroes. Superman can’t have a bad day. He’s Superman. He has to save everybody constantly. But who’s saving Superman when he has a bad day? Or he’s sick or he’s hurt?

The idea that teachers are superheroes — do people say that because there’s so much stuff we go through and have to deal with that normal civilian people are like, “There’s no way I could do it”? Well, half the time, we can’t do it, either. But also, when a student comes back to you or when you have a struggling student and they finally get it, that is the biggest emotion in the world, is when you have that kid, that kid who overcomes a behavioral issue or finally masters the standard or hits proficient on something. Those are the superhero moments, for sure.

Sometimes people say “superhero,” and my thing is, I’m just doing my job. I mean, everybody does their job. Sometimes I think that people expect teachers to fix everything. As much as we love the kids, you can’t fix everything in their life with school. But our school district has seniors write a letter to a teacher that’s impacted them, an elementary or a middle school teacher that’s impacted them — and when you get a letter from a student saying, “I hated going to the library at the beginning of the year, but after taking your reading class and reading better, I love to go to the library, and I might write a book myself one day.” I mean, that’s why I do it.

Let’s switch gears here a bit. What is the purpose of education? What is school for?

School is to help students realize their potential. They get exposed to different kinds of people and different backgrounds and different topics. And it’s for them to absorb as much as they want to and to do that exploration on their own. So my job, as a homeroom teacher or as a science teacher, is just to give them more options beyond maybe what they’re seeing online or in their home, to see that there’s other stuff out there and just to get out and figure it out for yourself. It’s really about encouraging them to find confidence and move on and just be awesome.

Carlotta, in your view, what is school for?

Teaching kids the basics of life: reading, writing, math, budgeting.

Tyler, how about you?

To provide the next generation with the skills to help them succeed and to be responsible citizens with good values, to give students the foundation of what our democratic system is. This is how we participate in it. And this is why it’s important, along with compassion, strong families, kindness.

I think education is just formalized curiosity. Our skill set is to get a bunch of kids and individual kids who don’t want to be there — and don’t want to do what you do — to do it and do it willingly and happily. As teachers, we’re just the directors to help them get the skill set, the civic responsibility, as a person.

What do you mean by “civic responsibility”?

To understand that they’re not entitled to anything, that they have to give back and it’s a community. And you have to be respectful and listen. That’s civic responsibility, as well as, “You can have a chance. There’s still hope for social mobility.”

You think that’s an important part of your job as a teacher, is helping kids with social mobility?

Absolutely, to teach them there is hope. You can still, in this nation, be whatever and whomever you want to be.

I think part of it is helping students really figure out who they are. And I can say this, especially for high school, what they’re good at and how to foster that, what they’re not good at and how to either get better at it or kind of work around it and then prepare them to sort of take that and show them what possibilities there are for them in all that.

OK, Stacey, what do you think? What is school for?

Guiding the students in how to navigate this world that we live in. It’s changed. It’s not like it was when we were growing up. I was just telling my daughter this morning, she and her peers have the world at their fingertips. And there is nothing that they can’t find out by going online. And so at this point — I don’t see schools going away, but I see fewer and fewer brick and mortar buildings because, again, the pandemic has taught us that for older kids anyway, a certain level of things can be done online.

I want my kids to have a passion and to take ownership of their learning. And whatever they are thrilled about, diving deeper into — amazing. We’re all forced to teach to the standards and whatever, yada, yada, yada. That is not the entire thing of school. School is learning how to be social with people. School is building character. It’s so much more than reading, writing, arithmetic.

Here’s the last thing I want to ask about: How much do you think it would matter if teachers had higher social status and were simply paid more? Would that revolutionize education?

Thomas Jefferson always said that you needed the best and the brightest to be able to educate the next generation. And if that’s true, you need to treat them with respect. That means monetary compensation. Then others will hold you in that same regard. If not, then anybody, like the guy next to me, says, “I’ll just go teach as a hobby.” They don’t have any idea of the skill set that we possess.

This is actually my second career. I am a doctor, a medical doctor. And due to circumstances, I went from being in the hospital to being in the classroom. And I’ve actually had a strange reluctance to let people know about my education or my professional background because they’re like, “Why are you a teacher?” And I always tell people, “I can teach the material. I know my stuff. But not everyone can relay it and get it through to the kids.” So for me, I actually have both sides of it. I do believe that we need a little bit more respect and prestige for teachers because, again, as we said earlier, a lot of what we do does go unappreciated, just because of ignorance. They just don’t know what we do, how we get there, how hard it is every single day. It’s not just at graduation or the first day of school. It’s that second Tuesday in the middle of November when nobody wants to be there. And you’ve got to somehow muster up the strength to get everybody to open up that book and try to learn something today.

I think part of the problem is that a lot of people discount being a teacher out of hand because it is such a low-paying, underappreciated profession. There are people that would probably be excellent teachers that do something else that they might not enjoy as much to make money. I mean, when I was a single mom and my kids were in school, I had to work two jobs because being a teacher didn’t pay all my bills. My students tell me, “I would never be a teacher.” If people felt like it was a more prestigious job and that they were going to get paid for all the work that they do, more people would want to do it.


Special Education, Inc.

Private equity sees profit in the business of educating autistic kids. Parents and teachers see diminished services and added stress.

article about public education

Emily had a lot of fight in her.

The petite 7-year-old had blonde hair and blue eyes. She was also diagnosed with autism, and she had been struggling ever since her mother, Sarah, moved her and her brother hours away from their dad during the pandemic. After the move, Emily became increasingly frustrated with her inability to articulate her thoughts and began boiling over into rages that required interventions at the public school she attended.

So in August 2021, Sarah moved Emily to New Story, a private school in State College, Pennsylvania, dedicated to serving children with special needs, in the hopes that the teachers there would know how to keep her little girl calm. But at New Story, Emily seemed to be having even more meltdowns, and the school called Sarah to intervene when her daughter broke down. So Sarah left work, again and again, to comfort her daughter with bear hugs.

She would rather miss work than let New Story teachers use their preferred tactic: corralling the first grader with gym mats that Emily would fight and scratch so hard, she'd come home with foam lodged beneath her bloody fingernails.

Then one afternoon in April last year, Sarah asked a family friend to pick up Emily from New Story. When the friend arrived, the little girl was on the playground, pinned down under the weight of four adults.

That night, Sarah decided that this nightmare had to end. Emily would not return to New Story. A year later, her daughter still hasn't talked about the incident at home or in therapy. New Story calls itself a "safe, nurturing environment for our students and their families," but Emily has a different term for her old school: "the mean people."

After nearly two semesters of second grade at a public school, Sarah said her daughter has progressed faster, academically and behaviorally, than she did at New Story. When Emily has an in-class meltdown, public school staff discreetly shepherd her to a quiet sensory room to calm down.

"Now, at the very least, I know that she is safe and she can communicate that to me," said Sarah, who asked that we use pseudonyms to protect her daughter. Their identities are known to Business Insider.

Sarah didn't know it at the time, but when she enrolled Emily in New Story, she was unwittingly signing on to an experiment in American education, one that worries former staff, US senators, and special-education researchers alike: New Story is the country's first large-scale special-education-school network owned by a private-equity firm.

In 2019, the Boston-based private-equity arm of Audax Group, which manages $36 billion for investors, including the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System and the Pennsylvania State Employees' Retirement System, purchased a mid-Atlantic special-education-school network called New Story Schools for an undisclosed price. Under Audax, New Story has purchased other local school chains, like Pennsylvania's River Rock Academy, as well as various behavioral-services companies, and rolled them up under New Story's corporate umbrella. The deals have created what New Story calls one of the largest special-education companies in the US, serving children with autism, behavioral problems, and other issues.

Now, Audax is reportedly looking to flip the company . More than a quarter of private-equity-owned companies across industries are sold to other private-equity firms, so the new owners may look much like the current one.

To some, private equity's business model appears antithetical to special education. In a basic private-equity deal, a firm pools money from investors like public pensions to buy a business, improve it (or load it up with debt), and sell it. Fast expansion means the firm can sell the business, typically four to seven years after buying it, and make a profit of 15% to 20% or more. Private equity targets companies that can grow fast, often by acquiring similar businesses.

A private-equity firm also makes money well before offloading the business, including by collecting fees from its investors and charging the businesses it owns for management and advisory services.

Special-education schools bring in a reliable income stream, typically from public funds: School districts and states pay New Story anywhere from $27,000 to $95,000 per student, and some schools operate year-round. (The average public school district in Pennsylvania, where New Story operates the most schools, spends about $23,000 per child across all types of public education. Additional services, such as providing an individual aide or specialized therapy, can push those costs much higher.) And a fragmented nationwide market means that a company like New Story — which Audax grew from 15 schools to a network of 75 schools and centers across seven states — has plenty of opportunities for expansion.

This year, New Story expects to bring in $305 million in revenue, the analytics firm Mergermarket said. The company serves a few thousand students, a tiny slice of the 8 million Americans between the ages of 3 and 21 who receive special-education services each year — a 25% increase from 2011, according to government data . (In 2021-22, 2% of these children attended public or private schools dedicated to students with disabilities.)

Under Audax, New Story gutted departments focused on quality and education and struggled with turnover.

To understand how New Story changed under private-equity ownership and what private-equity takeovers could mean for the special-education landscape, Business Insider reviewed more than 3,000 pages of public records and spoke to 20 current and former New Story employees and parents. Many of them said that under Audax, New Story pushed to expand at the expense of student safety and academic progress. While parental complaints and even lawsuits alleging mistreatment are not uncommon at special-education schools, records of complaints and interviews with parents and educators show that New Story's focus on profit under private-equity ownership added an alarming layer of stress to special education.

Under Audax, New Story gutted departments focused on quality and education and struggled with turnover. The company's hiring practices grew so lax in some instances — including hiring an administrator who was fired from her previous school for failing to report suspected sexual abuse — that state regulators expressed alarm. Some parents, like Sarah, grew concerned about the inappropriate use of restraints and isolation.

Shanon Taylor, a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, who studies privately run special-education schools, told BI that private equity's push to make big profits is fundamentally at odds with special education's mission. Since the schools are generally paid flat reimbursement rates by school districts or insurers, she said private-equity firms make money by cutting costs.

"They'll cut the number of employees. They'll pay employees less. They'll hire less-qualified employees so they can pay them less. They're going to defer maintenance on their facilities and not have the equipment necessary in those facilities," Taylor said, speaking about private-equity firms generally. "All of those things then are impacting the services to these vulnerable populations."

As a parent of two adults with special needs, Taylor said she would not have sent her children to a private-equity-owned school.

"Most people don't even realize that the school that you may be sending your child to — because you're looking for a specialized setting — may not be run with the best interest of your child at heart," she said.

Top policymakers are concerned, too.

"Private equity has no place in education — especially special education," Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio told BI. "From nursing homes to retail to housing, we have seen private equity kill too many jobs, dismantle too many businesses, raise prices, and hurt too many patients in our state, and I am deeply alarmed it is now working to undermine — and endanger — a student's fundamental right to a free and appropriate public education." New Story runs 12 schools and centers in Ohio.

Brown's colleague, Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, where New Story operates 27 schools, agreed. "Public education dollars should be spent ensuring that students with disabilities have their individual education needs met by qualified teachers and health professionals, not padding the pockets of wealthy private equity executives," he said. Casey chairs the Senate's Health Subcommittee on Children and Families.

'A moneymaking machine'

New Story was founded in 1997 by Paul Volosov, a certified school psychologist who created several for-profit businesses to support adults and children with special needs and other challenges.

Volosov wasn't a perfect owner. Before New Story was acquired by Audax, its schools were the focus of a handful of lawsuits alleging improper treatment of students and employees. And Volosov drew internal scrutiny for his erratic behavior and off-color remarks about women and religion, some former employees said. Volosov stayed on as New Story's CEO until January 2022, when he transitioned to chairman.

Audax filled the company's four C-suite roles with people who had no education or behavioral-health experience.

But former staffers said some of New Story's problems under Volosov were magnified with Audax's ownership. After the education and quality departments were slashed in summer 2022, staff said the disconnect between corporate objectives and the classroom widened. Audax filled the company's four C-suite roles with people who had no education or behavioral-health experience.

"Since the expansion, I think it's just a moneymaking machine," said Jim Grinnen, a former regional manager of education for New Story's central Pennsylvania region. He joined the company in 2018 and left in 2021. "Being a special educator, knowing why I got into it 25 years ago, it just makes your stomach turn when you're seeing these rich people give speeches in front of you with no clue what we're doing here."

Despite those concerns, some parents and educators have expressed satisfaction with the level of care New Story offered. For some families, New Story schools were a last resort, taking a difficult child when no one else would. In Pennsylvania Department of Education records, 11 superintendents and other public school administrators praised one arm of New Story, an 11-campus alternative-education school called River Rock Academy that enrolls disruptive students.

"It is a company that truly cares about the students and treats them as if they were their own. The company provides a high level of service," wrote the superintendent of one Pennsylvania school district in River Rock's application for relicensure.

In an October letter to BI, New Story's senior vice president of operations for Pennsylvania, Christina Spielbauer, highlighted the improvements the "deeply mission-oriented" company has made under Audax, including hiring over 221 new staff members last summer and investing $2 million last year into facilities. Spielbauer wrote that the company was "open to sharing more information" with BI.

Nathaniel Garnick, a spokesman for the company, subsequently declined to answer a list of questions or make New Story or Audax representatives available to interview. Garnick issued two statements, one on behalf of Audax and another on behalf of New Story. He wrote that the company has invested almost $50 million into New Story facilities and improved the student-teacher ratio.

"Rather than focus on the positive impact we have every day on thousands of students with severe emotional and behavioral issues, it is unfortunate that Business Insider has chosen to cherry-pick a handful of isolated incidents in an effort to sully the reputation of our hard working, dedicated team who put their hearts and souls into the work they do," Garnick wrote.

Speaking for Audax, he wrote that staff shortages mean schools are "ill-equipped to confront the escalating mental health crisis on their own."

" Our investment has enabled New Story to expand access and provide vital support to a significantly underserved population of students who often cannot attend traditional public schools," he wrote.

Trying to do more with fewer people

Craig Richards loves teaching and doesn't shy away from a challenge. The elementary-school teacher started a chess club in the Reading School District, one of Pennsylvania's poorest and worst-performing districts. He's also worked in a youth detention center, and his wife is a teacher.

Under its new owners, Richards told Business Insider, River Rock subordinated student care to profits.

In 2017, Richards joined River Rock Academy, which specializes in educating students who can't stay in their public schools because of misconduct. He said staff members at River Rock were caring and tried their best to educate a group of students who often wanted to be anywhere else. Richards left the school after two years. While he was away, New Story bought the school. When he returned for the 2022-23 academic year, he found that the tenor had shifted: Under its new owners, he told Business Insider, River Rock subordinated student care to profits.

"Now since it's New Story, they're definitely more money-driven. They're trying to do more with fewer people," Richards said.

Several former staff members in Pennsylvania said New Story schools there chronically lacked substitute teachers. When Richards missed roughly a week of work during the last academic year for the flu and another three days to take care of his daughter when she broke her foot, behavioral staff — not teachers — covered his classroom.

Asking staff to double as subs might be reasonable if New Story expanded its staff for such needs. But Richards said the school employed fewer staff under New Story than during his first stint, putting extra pressure on teachers to work no matter what.

"It definitely made you feel a little less human. You're not allowed to be sick, your daughter can't have a problem, because we don't have enough people here," he said.

Teacher and staff turnover is a perennial problem for public and private schools nationally that was exacerbated by the pandemic. The people who spoke to BI said New Story turnover is high, even at the top levels. For instance, two Pennsylvania education directors left in spring 2023, according to records obtained by BI — one after just months in the role. Neither was immediately replaced. One Ohio school had four directors, including a 25-year-old, in 2022.

Such director turnover is highly unusual, Judith McKinney, a Virginia-based special-education advocate, said. In her five years evaluating private schools with Virginia's Department of Education, she said directors typically stayed at the same school for years, sometimes decades.

Several grad students working at Green Tree School were so deeply alarmed that they registered their concerns with the Pennsylvania Department of Education

At River Rock, Richards struggled with new curriculum demands under New Story's ownership. His school previously reimbursed teachers who bought worksheets and other items on a popular online marketplace called Teachers Pay Teachers. But last year, River Rock began directing teachers to upload their own worksheets or other material to share with colleagues across River Rock's 11 schools — a closed, unpaid version of Teachers Pay Teachers.

When Richards sought other curriculum resources, he was pointed to a school closet that contained donated materials.

"One of the manuals didn't even have the first unit — it was ripped out," he said. "I'm like, 'Can we look at getting something else?' I had ideas of books we could use. They wouldn't."

Though he loved his colleagues and some aspects of the job, when a position to manage a local running store came up, Richards eagerly took it. He left in June — just two semesters after his return.

(In state paperwork, River Rock said it offers teachers "a variety of textbooks and resources including a resource bank available to them to provide appropriate course content to students based on their individual need.")

Grinnen, the former Pennsylvania administrator, told BI that his schools also struggled with curriculum resources, including having to give 12th graders textbooks written for second graders. That surprised him since the company seemed to have deep pockets to open new locations. Some schools acted more like holding pens than educational facilities, Grinnen said.

Donnell McLean, who briefly ran a New Story campus in Virginia, said the school's lack of a standardized curriculum led to some students being warehoused.

There was "not a lot of challenging work, especially for the higher-functioning students," McLean said.

Last spring, several graduate students working at Philadelphia's Green Tree School were so deeply alarmed by what they saw that they registered their concerns with the Pennsylvania Department of Education. This, along with other complaints, prompted several visits to Green Tree by PDE employees in April and June. One state employee wrote to her supervisor that her visit's "purpose is to do a walk through to determine how much instruction is actually going on based on the complaints that were received." (Subsequent communication about employees' trips was redacted in PDE records obtained by BI.)

In Ohio, New Story administrators told BI they pushed back against the company's plans to increase school enrollment and convert some schools into centers with a half day for school and a half day for therapy. Such a switch would allow New Story to make more money per student by billing insurance companies for more therapy.

While enrollment data is difficult to come by across states, Ohio offers a window into how New Story has increased enrollment without similar teacher increases. Four New Story-branded Ohio schools collectively added 106 students from 2022 to 2024 — a 52% increase — but lost 31 licensed staff, per state data. (BI did not include a recently opened New Story school in this analysis.)

Private equity has been piling into other autism services and similar behavioral-health companies.

Meanwhile, huge additions to the ranks of support staff quickly changed New Story's employee composition. In 2022, support staff comprised 41% of New Story's staff — but 87% this year. For comparison, BI examined 19 other private, secular Ohio special-education schools' data. From 2022 through 2024, those schools' rosters were, on average, made up of about half support staff and half teachers. None had more than 75% support staff, who are generally paid less than teachers and have less training.

(New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia do not track staff numbers for privately run schools.)

New Story employees questioned other corporate changes. Some staff disagreed with a plan to give bonuses to administrators based on student enrollment, something the company discussed across states, two people said.

"Our rationale was we never wanted to create a financial incentive to enroll a student that we couldn't properly serve or to keep a student that was ready to return to their public school," said one of the employees who said they pushed back on the plan.

Not all teachers take issue with New Story's approach. Natalie Stoup teaches seven autistic and intellectually and developmentally disabled students at New Story's New Cumberland, Pennsylvania, campus. Stoup, who has taught for 27 years, said she has loved her two years at the school.

"I absolutely really have a strong respect for the program," she told BI. "I think they're doing wonderful things."

Blackstone's autism bet

While New Story is the first large-scale, private equity-owned special-education school network, Audax's bet comes as private equity has been piling into other autism services and similar behavioral-health companies. Many of the biggest private-equity players have snapped up autism-services providers in the wake of state and federal changes requiring more payments for mental-health and autism services.

That shift made the industry look much more profitable and scalable, magic words for private-equity players like the industry giant Blackstone. In 2018, the firm bought a majority stake in the behavioral-therapy provider Center for Autism and Related Disorders. Blackstone then put the business into bankruptcy proceedings in June, citing labor costs and lease obligations for centers it closed. Forbes reported last year that former employees attributed the company's challenges to a "model that put profits ahead of patient care." (New Story bought CARD's Virginia locations during bankruptcy, and the bulk of the company was sold back to the founder.)

When employee costs rise quickly, companies like CARD and New Story can't pass on the costs to their customers as fast as other businesses, like a restaurant raising menu prices. Insurance reimbursement and school tuition haven't kept pace with the post-pandemic economic landscape, increasing pressure on behavioral-health companies to make money by trimming costs and expanding.

NBC News reported that CARD's staff training decreased under Blackstone's ownership and many employees left after wages stayed stagnant for three years. (Blackstone claimed that it increased training, though staff documents reviewed by NBC News showed the opposite.) Like New Story, CARD's private-equity-installed CEO had no special education or behavioral-health experience.

Other private-equity-owned healthcare companies have recently come under intense regulatory scrutiny. The Biden administration is pressing for transparency for private-equity-owned nursing homes, while the Federal Trade Commission is suing an anesthesiology company and its PE owner for creating what it calls an anticompetitive scheme. PE's special-education and autism-related companies have, so far, largely flown under the radar.

Restraining kids without uniform policies

Educational and disciplinary data about privately run schools like New Story is virtually impossible to obtain — and New Story doesn't volunteer it. The schools are not required to publicly report testing data, attendance, or other markers of school success. And because of the varied student populations, such data would be difficult to compare to public or private schools. In Pennsylvania and Virginia, state Department of Education spokespeople said their agencies don't even keep track of how many students attend private schools.

Nickie Coomer, a Colorado College education professor who has written about the privatization of special education, told BI that this data gap is a major regulatory hole, one that private-equity companies are happy to exploit.

"There's not a lot of accountability about how we're adhering to the laws we have in place to protect kids with disabilities," she said. "There's no governance, no elected school board … It's the antithesis of what schools should be."

One key metric for student safety that's reported at public schools is restraint usage. In most districts, when a student could endanger themselves or others, staff may use restraints, including physically immobilizing the student or isolating them so they can calm down. As with other data, New Story's restraint usage is not publicly reported.

Parents BI talked to had a wide array of experiences, from Sarah's ordeal to others who say New Story's restraint practices have been appropriate and effective for their children. One father of a student who graduated State College's New Story school in 2022 told BI that his young adult son, who frequently needs to be held down at home to avoid self-harm, was always appropriately restrained and the incidents were properly documented.

Interviews with multiple staff members indicate that their training on how to handle challenging student situations varied from school to school.

Donnell McLean, the former Virginia school director, said he never received any restraint training through New Story. Instead, he relied on what he knew from his prior job. In Virginia, public schools are legally required to document any restraint use and notify parents — but McLean said he didn't always receive reports from his staff after they restrained students.

In 2022, an Ohio school director at a New Story school fired an employee who restrained an 11-year-old with such force that his parents sent photos of hand-shaped bruises on the boy's shoulder.

Shyara Hill, a parent of three students at the New Story-owned Green Tree School in Philadelphia, told the Pennsylvania Department of Education that she wasn't properly notified when one of her children was placed in isolation. In emails and phone calls to the agency last spring, Hill detailed other troubling incidents at the school. She reported that one of her children was hurt in a classroom fight but wasn't examined by a nurse; one was repeatedly bullied with no staff intervention; and one came home soiled after staffing shortages prevented them from visiting the restroom.

"The school has not followed the agreement, safety protocols, [or] parent notification plan and has not responded to several communications from myself and [my] child's attorney," Hill wrote in the email, obtained in a public records request from the state Department of Education.

(Neither Hill nor her attorney responded to requests for comment.)

Documents that River Rock sent to Pennsylvania's Department of Education state that restraints "will be used as a last resort" and will be reported to the agency.

A staffer with a criminal record

BI's review of records and litigation turned up alarming lapses in New Story's vetting of new hires as Audax rapidly expanded operations.

This summer, the company hired Amy Hall Kostoff to oversee student services across seven Pennsylvania campuses and serve as the educational director for one of them.

Hall Kostoff was fired in April 2022 from her tenured job as an assistant supervisor at a Pennsylvania county special-education center for failing to properly report suspected sexual abuse involving two students, one of whom is nonverbal. In March 2023, the state's acting secretary of education assessed that Hall Kostoff was dishonest during the subsequent investigation.

A representative for the public school that fired Hall Kostoff declined to comment, including about New Story's background check.

Hall Kostoff, who was still employed at New Story as of late March, declined to comment.

Pennsylvania Department of Education records show that employees were concerned about the hiring practices at Philadelphia's Green Tree School. One department employee wrote to her colleagues in April that staff records at Green Tree were "missing a lot of information," including about background checks and teacher certifications. That employee later wrote that her background check of one Green Tree staff member turned up convictions for public intoxication, disorderly conduct, and indecent exposure — the latter of which would legally prohibit employment at a school. BI was unable to corroborate the PDE employee's claims, and it's unclear if the charges stemmed from incidents in or out of school, or if that employee continued working for Green Tree. The staff member did not respond to requests for comment.

New Story has terminated other staff members accused of wrongdoing, including an occupational therapist in Pennsylvania who was arrested in 2022 and charged with attempting to solicit a minor for sex. A company spokeswoman told a local newspaper the charges did not involve a New Story student.

In 2022, the principal of a New Story-owned school in Rochelle Park, New Jersey, told police that graduates of the school had received sexually inappropriate messages from their former gym teacher, who was still employed there. The teacher wrote to the female students about how he "was sexually attracted to students while they attended the school," and he named specific students, a police report said. (The students told police that no inappropriate behavior occurred while they attended the school.) The teacher also asked another former student if they wanted to smoke weed and gave the former student his Snapchat handle. The police report said the teacher was placed on leave pending an internal investigation; it is unclear whether further action was taken. A detective advised against pursuing charges because the former students are adults, and the messages, "though inappropriate," were not illegal, he wrote. Asked if the teacher was still employed, New Story's spokesman declined to answer and the school's principal did not respond to a request for comment.

Love, Emily

In State College, Emily is thriving in public elementary school. She splits her time between mainstream and special-education classes, spending time with her peers in a way she never did at New Story, where she was the school's only young student.

(Researchers told BI that students miss out on building key social skills when they're sequestered in special-education programs.)

This year, Emily has attended a birthday party and playdates, the kinds of childhood interactions Sarah feared she'd never experience.

"I want my children to be sound, functioning, responsible adults, but I don't want to break their spirits," Sarah said.

She said that public school employees have been kinder — a New Story staff member once said Emily had a "nasty side" — and that Emily is behaving better.

She recently asked Sarah how to sign a card with "love, Emily."

Do you have a story to share? Email this reporter on a non-work device at [email protected] .

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With public universities under threat, massive protests against austerity shake Argentina

Students, teachers, rectors, unions and social organizations demonstrated on Tuesday in different Argentine cities in protest against the precarious situation of dozens of public universities due to the lack of budget by President Javier Milei’s austerity policies. (AP Video by Victor R. Caivano)

Students protest for more public university funding and against austerity measures proposed by President Javier Milei, featured on the sign, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, April 23, 2024. The posters read in Spanish "With fascism, there are no rights," center, and "Why so much fear to educate the people?," right, and "Defending the university is defending the country," left. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Students protest for more public university funding and against austerity measures proposed by President Javier Milei, featured on the sign, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, April 23, 2024. The posters read in Spanish “With fascism, there are no rights,” center, and “Why so much fear to educate the people?,” right, and “Defending the university is defending the country,” left. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

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Police guard the Casa Rosada presidential palace during a march by demonstrators demanding more funding for public universities and to protest against austerity measures proposed by President Javier Milei, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

A resident watches demonstrators march to demand more funding for public universities and protest against austerity measures proposed by President Javier Milei in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Students march to Congress demanding more funding for public universities and protesting against austerity measures proposed by President Javier Milei in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Students march to Congress to demand more funding for public universities and against austerity measures proposed by President Javier Milei in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

A veterinary student Agustina Aguirre holds a sign that reads in Spanish “Education and art liberate, they do not indoctrinate” during a march demanding more funding for public universities and against austerity measures proposed by President Javier Milei in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

People march to demand more funding for public universities and against austerity measures proposed by President Javier Milei in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Police guard the Casa Rosada presidential palace during a march demanding more funding for public universities and to protest against austerity measures proposed by President Javier Milei, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

A protester sits atop a subway entrance during a march demanding more funding for public universities and protest against austerity measures proposed by President Javier Milei in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, April 23, 2024.(AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Demonstrators gather outside the Casa Rosada presidential palace during a march demanding more funding for public universities and to protest against austerity measures proposed by President Javier Milei, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Demonstrators march to the Casa Rosada presidential palace demanding more funding for public universities and to protest against austerity measures proposed by President Javier Milei, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Police guard the Casa Rosada presidential palace during a march demanding more funding for public universities and to protest against austerity measures proposed by President Javier Milei, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A student holds a sign that reads in Spanish “Without science there’s no future” during a march for more funding for public universities and against austerity measures proposed by President Javier Milei in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

People march to demand more funding for public universities and protest against austerity measures proposed by President Javier Milei in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Raising their textbooks and diplomas and singing the national anthem, hundreds of thousands of Argentines filled the streets of Buenos Aires and other cities on Tuesday to demand increased funding for the country’s public universities, in an outpouring of anger at libertarian President Javier Milei’s harsh austerity measures.

The scale of the demonstration in downtown Buenos Aires appeared to exceed other massive demonstrations that have rocked the capital since Milei came to power.

Students and professors coordinated with the country’s powerful trade unions and leftist political parties to push back against budget cuts that have forced Argentina’s most venerable university to declare a financial emergency and warn of imminent closure.

Students protest for more public university funding and against austerity measures proposed by President Javier Milei, featured on the sign, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

In a sign unrest was growing in response to Milei’s policies, even conservative politicians, private university administrators and right-wing TV personalities joined the march, defending the common cause of public education in Argentina that has underpinned the country’s social progress for decades.

“It is historic,” said Ariana Thiele Lara, a 25-year-old recent graduate protesting. “It feels like we were all united.”

Describing universities as bastions of socialism where professors indoctrinate their students, Milei has tried to dismiss the university budget crisis as politics as usual.

“The cognitive dissonance that brainwashing generates in public education is tremendous,” he said.

Demonstrators gather outside the Casa Rosada presidential palace during a march demanding more funding for public universities and to protest against austerity measures proposed by President Javier Milei, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

At the University of Buenos Aires, or UBA, halls went dark, elevators froze and air conditioning stopped working in some buildings last week. Professors taught 200-person lectures without microphones or projectors because the public university couldn’t cover its electricity bill.

“It’s an unthinkable crisis,” said Valeria Añón, a 50-year-old literature professor at the university, known as UBA. “I feel sad for my students and for myself as professor and researcher.”

In his drive to reach zero deficit, Milei is slashing spending across Argentina — shuttering ministries, defunding cultural centers, laying off state workers and cutting subsidies. On Monday he had something to show for it, announcing Argentina’s first quarterly fiscal surplus since 2008 and promising the public the pain would pay off.

“We are making the impossible possible even with the majority of politics, unions, the media and most economic actors against us,” he said in a televised address.

A veterinary student Agustina Aguirre holds a sign that reads in Spanish "Education and art liberate, they do not indoctrinate" during a march demanding more funding for public universities and against austerity measures proposed by President Javier Milei in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

On Tuesday, the footfall of protesters resounded in the city center. “Why are you so scared of public education?” banners asked. “The university will defend itself!” students shouted.

“We are trying to show the government it cannot take away our right to education,” said Santiago Ciraolo, a 32-year-old student in social communication protesting Tuesday. “Everything is at stake here.”

Since last July, when the fiscal year began, the state has provided the University of Buenos Aires with just 8.9% of its total budget as annual inflation now hovers near 290%. The university says that’s barely enough to keep lights on and provide basic services in teaching hospitals that have already cut capacity.

The university warned last week that without a rescue plan, the school would shut down in the coming months, stranding 380,000 students mid-degree. It’s a shock for Argentines who consider a free and quality university education a birthright. UBA has a proud intellectual tradition, having produced five Nobel Prize winners and 17 presidents.

“I’ve been given access to a future, to opportunities through this university that otherwise my family and many others at our income level could never afford,” said Alex Vargas, a 24-year-old economics student. “When you step back, you see how important this is for our society.”

People march to demand more funding for public universities and protest against austerity measures proposed by President Javier Milei in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

President Milei came to power last December, inheriting an economy in shambles after years of chronic overspending and suffocating international debt. Brandishing a chainsaw during his campaign to symbolize slashing the budget, he repeats a simple catchphrase to compatriots reeling from budget cuts and the peso’s 50% devaluation: “There is no money.”

Overall, Argentina puts 4.6% of its gross domestic product into education. Public universities are also free for international pupils, drawing legions of students from across Latin America, Spain and further afield. Critics of the system want foreign students to pay dues.

“Where I’m from, high-quality education is unfortunately a privilege, not a basic right,” said Sofia Hernandez, a 21-year-old from Bogota, Colombia studying medicine at UBA. “In Argentina there is a model that I wish more countries could have.”

The government said late Monday it was sending some $24.5 million to cover maintenance costs at public universities and another $12 million to keep medical centers operating.

“The discussion is settled,” presidential spokesperson Manuel Adorni said.

Students march to Congress demanding more funding for public universities and protesting against austerity measures proposed by President Javier Milei in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

University authorities disagreed, saying the promised transfer — which they still have not received — covers a fraction of what they need. For UBA, that means a 61% annual budget cut.

The teachers also need attention, said Matías Ruiz, UBA’s treasury secretary. They have seen their income decline in value more than 35% in the past four months. Staff salaries can be as low as $150 a month. Professors juggle multiple jobs to scrape by.

“We’ve had funding and salary freezes under previous right-wing governments but these cuts are three times worse,” said Ines Aldao, a 44-year-old literature professor at UBA.

Police guard the Casa Rosada presidential palace during a march by demonstrators demanding more funding for public universities and to protest against austerity measures proposed by President Javier Milei, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

The angry students, teachers and workers snaked through the capital’s streets just hours after Milei declared economic victory from his presidential palace.

“We are building a new era of prosperity in Argentina,” Milei told the public, boasting that Argentina had posted a quarterly fiscal surplus of 0.2% of gross domestic product.

A huge banner hanging over downtown Buenos Aires presented a choice: Milei or public education?

Leonardo Favio Correa carries yerba mate to a truck in Andresito, in Argentina’s northeast Misiones Province, Wednesday, April 17, 2024. Beneath the earthy drink’s mythical quality is grueling work, first performed by Indigenous tribes on Jesuit settlements in what is now Paraguay and today by low-paid laborers known as “tareferos,” in the steamy grasslands of Argentina’s northeast Misiones Province, center of the world's maté production. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

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Argentina's Milei faces biggest protest yet as students march over budget cuts

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Protest against Argentine's President Milei's "chainsaw" cuts on public education, in Buenos Aires

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Reporting by Nicolas Misculin; Additional Reporting by Jorge Otaola and Candelaria Grimberg; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien

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