Education experts weigh in on Biden’s proposal to triple funding for low-income schools

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks about his plan to beat COVID-19 in Wilmington, Delaware, October 23, 2020.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

Even before the coronavirus pandemic began, many experts warned that U.S. public schools were struggling and that inequality, was widening

One reason: unequal funding. In the United States, K-12 public schools are primarily funded by state and local dollars, which are largely based on state tax revenue and local property taxes — two sources that are greatly tied to the wealth of local residences, and by correlation, race.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, Black children are more than twice as likely as White children to attend high-poverty schools and researchers estimate that primarily white school districts receive $23 billion more in annual funding than non-white school districts. 

To help close this gap, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has proposed tripling the federal funding for schools with a high percentage of low-income students, known as "Title I" schools, which disproportionately enroll Black and Hispanic children.

"This new funding will first be used to ensure teachers at Title I schools are paid competitively, three- and four-year-olds have access to pre-school, and districts provide access to rigorous coursework across all their schools, not just a few," reads Biden's platform. "Once these conditions are met, districts will have the flexibility to use these funds to meet other local priorities. States without a sufficient and equitable finance system will be required to match a share of federal funds."

Currently, the federal government spends roughly $15 billion on assisting Title I schools. Tripling this amount would bring the total to approximately $45 billion. 

CNBC Make It spoke with teachers and education experts about what impact this proposal would have: 

Long-term impacts 

"There's a lot to like about this plan," says Claudia Persico assistant professor of public administration and policy at American University. "First, there is a lot of evidence that increasing funding for low-income school districts improves long-run outcomes."

Persico, alongside Kirabo Jackson, professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University, and Rucker Johnson, professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, analyzed decades of student outcomes and published a paper in the National Bureau of Economic Research which found that "a 10% increase in per-pupil spending each year for all twelve years of public school 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." 

"Biden's proposal is actually pretty comprehensive," adds Persico. "Another one of the elements that I really like and the proposal is that he wants to spend money on early childhood programs, and there is a ton of evidence that improving access to early childhood programs for low-income children would potentially have extremely positive long-term benefits."

Those benefits can include better professional outcomes, improved health among students and breaking cyclical poverty she says, pointing to research from Andrew Barr, associate professor of economics at Texas A&M University and Chloe Gibbs, assistant professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame. 

Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute says that while he is generally skeptical that increased funding always leads to improved student outcomes, the total cost is not as significant as some may think.

"It sounds huge, and it is huge for people who don't hang out in Washington, but in real life I think it would ultimately have a relatively modest effect," says Hess. "The $30 billion [increase] is about 4% of what we spend on schools in the U.S. each year so how big an impact could that have. But it's something, and obviously, those dollars would be relatively targeted."

Both Persico and Hess said the success of such a proposal hinges on how it is implemented.

"The devil is in the details," says Persico.

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Addressing educational racism

Increasing funding for low-income schools, which Black students disproportionately attend, is key to addressing long-standing racial inequities, says Richard Gray, deputy director of New York University's Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. 

"When you look at schools with students of color versus schools with White students, there's about a $23 billion dollar gap in the amount of funding that we provide to those schools," says Gray. "Closing this gap is essential and we're very happy to see this kind of commitment to investment in the part of a candidate Biden."

Gray argues that the success of programs like Head Start, which provides free preschool for low-income families, demonstrates how resources can help traditionally underserved students succeed in adulthood. 

"This isn't about just giving away money," he says. "This is about investing in possibilities. Investing in what could be lost if you have a child who has the capability of being someone who can contribute to society, but we failed to invest in them."

Increases in funding will also allow Title I schools to invest in experienced teachers and building more robust support systems for students.

"A lot of the times when Title I schools only have a certain amount of funds, they miss out on being competitive and finding great quality teachers. So a lot of teachers in low-income schools are known to be newer and less-experienced teachers," says Marie, who teaches 11th and 12th-grade math at a Title I high school in the Los Angeles Area and spoke with CNBC Make It on the condition of anonymity.

Marie says that she has worked with students who experience homelessness and hunger, who must work to support their families, who deal with community violence and who face discrimination from police. 

"Students bring all of that back into the classroom," she explains.

Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education says that this proposed increase in funding for Title I schools is necessary, but not sufficient, in addressing these concerns.

"This is about educational racism," says Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education. "There is no doubt that a $45 billion dollar infusion of Title I dollars would impact our most vulnerable students. There's no doubt about that. But it can't be the only investment we make because there is so much need out there. And there's going to be even more because of a pandemic"

The pressures of the pandemic

Experts warn that the pandemic is exacerbating existing inequalities in education. But many also mention that the pandemic has reinvigorated important conversations and the chance for change. 

For instance, when Marie's school moved to remote learning, she had to cope with not having enough textbooks to send home with each student. Now, her class uses an online textbook. 

"What's crazy is that even in the worst conditions that we give them, they still thrive," she says. "My kids are roses in concrete. And so if you could just give us the money to break up that concrete, could you imagine what they could do?"

"In a strange way I think the pandemic has changed the political dialog that we have about education, where people realize that there really are these relationships and connections that we have to people," says Gray. "There's a shift in people saying 'I didn't realize my connection to this person. I didn't realize how essential that person was, so I want to invest in the safety and well-being of that person, not only because it's important for them, but because I see the connection to me."

"This issue is not new, it's just that in the middle of this pandemic right now, it's been elevated, uncovered and unpacked," says Ansari. "I don't even know if I could have imagined that we would be in this moment right now where so many folks are actually seeing what's happening."

She continues, "The question is: what do we do differently in this moment right now and how will we make that decision? Who finally says 'These children matter to me. Their future matters to me. And I'm not just going to say that, I'm going to put money behind it to ensure that all of them across this nation have what they need to be successful."

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