Minnesota's school funding formula provides some students of color less than their white peers

Students on the move
Students moved through the front hallway in September 2015 on the first day of school at John F. Kennedy Senior High School in Bloomington.
Caroline Yang for MPR News 2015

The U.S. invests $23 billion more in school districts that serve mostly white students than it does in those that serve predominantly students of color, according to EdBuild, a national nonprofit that analyzes school funding issues.

EdBuild is calling on states to more equitably fund schools, and it's holding up Minnesota as a success story — but one with still more room for improvement.

Overall, Minnesota districts with mostly students of color receive 8 percent more funding than predominantly white districts, according to the February report. But if you dive deeper and look only at the state's highest-need districts — schools that serve mostly poor, white students receive $509 more per student than poor, nonwhite school districts.

Associate professor Nicola Alexander studies school funding and equity for the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota. She spoke with MPR host Tom Crann about the findings.

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The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: I'm going to start with one of these big, 30,000-foot questions we need as context. How does school funding work in Minnesota?

A: The state gives the bulk of the funding, and they may give additional funding to that base, based on the needs and the capacity of school districts. For example, what is the proportion of poor kids that they have? What is the proportion of English-language learners that they have? They also look at the capacity of the district to raise its own funds through levies, and so they look at the wealth of the district. Then the school districts, based on what they consider their need in addition to the state funding, will add to that.

Q: So some districts in the state that serve more minority students actually get a bit more funding, but it isn't that clear cut.

A: Right. Minnesota does a good job of making sure that districts that have a higher proportion of students in need, as measured by free and reduced lunch, get more money. What EdBuild has found is that if you are a district that has predominantly white students in need, you get more money than districts that have predominantly black students or non-white students in need.

Q: And why is that?

A: I think it's primarily because of what we consider legitimate differences to equalize, or what are the legitimate differences that we can give more for. One of the things that we think about is, if you are a sparsely populated district, it's going to cost you more per student, and so we consider that and give more for that. We look less at the differential or higher costs of metropolitan districts.

Q: Give us an example of things that would cost more here in Minneapolis or St Paul?

A: Teacher [salaries.] It costs a lot more to live in the metropolitan regions. It may be about 18 percent more than in the outstate areas.

Q: The state has been very deliberate about ending funding disparities and closing the achievement gap for at least a decade, if not more. Why hasn't it been working?

A: They're focusing on important considerations like poverty and the capacity of districts to raise money. I think we've been a little bit more reluctant to focus on the disadvantages that are primarily associated with race. We don't necessarily call it out as race or fund it as legitimate.

We quite often conflate race and poverty status. We make studies about race and assume that it's true about poverty, or we make studies about poverty and assume that it's true about race.

When we talk about educational policy and educational opportunities, to talk about it without looking at the context in which students are learning would be a misstep. I think we should figure out a way to distinguish without discriminating. So what I'm asking for is not that we have lower expectations for kids in the urban area, but that we recognized that they have a different context.

That's a concern of folks in the field, that we don't want to look at color because we don't want it to matter. The problem is that race does matter, so if you don't look at it explicitly, you're not necessarily getting at some of the disadvantages that exist.

Q: What does the research say about the link between funding disparities and student achievement?

A: You may not be surprised. We disagree in the field about what really matters. One researcher, [Bruce] Baker, indicates that money does matter. Another researcher, [Eric] Hanushek, says it matters only if we can incentivize what it is that students are doing. So it's not money that matters, it's what the policymakers can create to get teachers and students going towards the goal of higher student achievement.

Q: Here in Minnesota, have we followed one of the sides of this argument more closely?

A: I think we recognize that money does matter. I think that's why EdBuild considers Minnesota to be doing well in terms of trying to address gaps. But, certainly, the evidence suggests we can be doing better.

Q: Personally, how does this play out in your life, as an African American with a daughter in the Minneapolis public schools? You proudly said she's at Edison High School. What are your concerns if we don't get this right?

A: That if we don't have sufficient support for inner-city school districts, that we won't have enough funding to support advanced programming, as well as support to help students meet that advanced programming; for field trips so that they can have an enriched curriculum; that we don't have to have bake sales and soup wars so that our students can have opportunities that kids have in more privileged areas.