Equity means providing schools resources based on students' needs
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Equity means providing schools resources based on students’ needs

Dr. Larry Picus, A Professor At The University Of Southern California’s Rossier School Of Education, Discussed Educational Equity And School Funding Adequacy At A Recent Legislative Workshop In Phoenix. Photo By David Marino Jr./AZEdNews

How do you determine equity in education?

Statistics that measure revenue variation and fiscal neutrality can help assess whether all students have access to the resources they need to succeed, said Dr. Larry Picus, a professor of education finance and policy at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education at a recent legislative workshop in Phoenix.

Picus has conducted studies of educational equity and school funding adequacy in states across the country, including Arizona, which recently received a B grade in equity but an F in adequate funding from Education Week’s Quality Counts State Report Card.

Equity and adequacy were key in Gov. Ducey’s State of the State speech where he said he wants more money to go to public K-12 education and to provide needed resources to schools that serve large populations of low-income students and now the Arizona Legislature looking at ways to do just that this session.

Audio: AZEdNews’ David Marino Jr.’s interview with Dr. Larry Picus


While many focus on horizontal equity – each school receiving the same amount of resources – what they should focus on is vertical equity – each school receiving resources based on their students’ needs, Picus said.

That means providing lower-performing students who have greater needs with more resources than higher-performing students with lesser needs.

“Vertical equity means we actually address the individual needs of children,” said Picus, former president of the Association for Education Finance & Policy and member of the EdSource Board of Directors. “The obvious thing is special education. We spend more money per child for children who have disabilities.”

One way these needs are met is through grants including federal Title I money that goes to schools with large numbers of low-income students to help provide services that meet those children’s needs.

Another example, is transportation funding for rural and urban school districts which often have very different needs.

Transportation costs per pupil for urban school districts are often fairly low, because in densely populated areas where schools are nearby many children can walk to school, but those costs in rural areas are often much higher because schools are more spread out over sparsely populated areas making it more difficult for children to walk to school, Picus said.

“If you roll that into an equity model and say that everybody gets $10,000 a child, and an urban district spends $500 a child for transportation, and a rural district spends $1,500 per child for transportation, you’ve created an $1,000 inequity,” Picus said.

Adequate school funding

Equity is closely related to school funding adequacy, which is supplying enough revenue to ensure all students in the state can meet performance standards.

On paper, if a state achieves school funding adequacy then its education system is considered equitable, but educational equity is not just about funding and it’s not that simple.

“No one is probably going to criticize me when I say that more {money} is better than less,” Picus said. “To some extent, it’s not just how much, but how you are using those resources that also matters.”

To ensure funding adequacy and equitable use of resources, Picus recommends gathering facts about school spending and performance, bringing together educational professionals, policy experts, high-performing teachers, and administrators to examine the current model, note what improvements would benefit students most and allocate resources to do that.

It’s important to allocate resources into programs and initiatives that help struggling students, including summer school, extended-day programs and special education as well as provide 10 days of professional development in every teacher’s contract, most of which would be used to develop an instructional program, Picus said.

Picus points to his work with the Wyoming public school system as an example of such a method being used to allocate resources. In 2005, the Wyoming Legislature contracted Picus’ group Lawrence O. Picus and Associates to recalibrate the funding system in Wyoming schools in an “evidence-based” approach.

“Performance in Wyoming is pretty good. It’s not Massachusetts…{but}, it’s better than Arizona, it’s better than Montana, and it’s better than a lot of states that surround it,” Picus said.

Recruiting and retaining teachers

To recruit and retain high-quality teachers, higher teacher pay needs to go along with increased support to improve instruction, said Picus, who drew on his experience working in the Wyoming school system.

Picus also said that in choosing teachers, principals’ need to account for the specific needs of the students in that area.

“Hiring a good teacher in inner-city Los Angeles is probably pretty darn different from hiring a good teacher in somewhere on the Navajo Reservation,” Picus said. “A teacher who is not succeeding or is not happy in my school, may be very happy in your school, or vice versa.”

How students are counted

States also need to consider how their method of counting the students in their schools affects the amount of funding schools receive.

The two most common methods are average daily membership, which Arizona uses, and average daily attendance, which California uses. Average daily membership ensures that any student enrolled gets counted, regardless of the rate at which they attend school, while average daily attendance only counts a student when they attend school.

Arizona’s school finance system is based on spending, not revenue, which differentiates it from other states, Picus said. Arizona schools’ spending limits are based on average daily membership, and if a school somehow receives more revenue than their spending limit, they are not allowed to use it.

“Is it better, is it worse? I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s a different kind of set of complications,” Picus said.