Here is how school funding is supposed to work: School districts use state and local money to fund their schools in an equitable way. Then they get federal money for disadvantaged students to help provide the extra things that children living in poverty need to catch up to their better-off classmates.

That’s the idea. But a new federal study has found that school districts are actually spending less of their state and local dollars on poor schools. Nearly half of all poor schools were at least 10 percent below the average school in their district when it came to state and local funding. How is that possible? Education Week explains it well:

The law says that districts don’t have to take actual teachers’ salaries into account. They just have to make sure that teachers at every school in the district are on the same salary schedule. But that means a [high poverty] school with lots of inexperienced teachers (who tend to be cheaper because they’re lower on the salary schedule) could get less state and local money overall than a [low poverty] school in the same district.

I checked out the data for San Diego Unified schools to see if the same trend happens here. I decided to do separate comparisons for elementary schools, middle schools and high schools to make sure we’re doing an apples-to-apples comparison. I compared schools that get federal money for disadvantaged students to those that don’t.

In every case, San Diego Unified is spending less of its state and local dollars on its higher poverty schools. The gap is most striking at its high schools, where it spends $2,973 per student at poor schools and $3,594 per student at better-off schools.

This isn’t surprising because we already know that more experienced teachers tend to migrate away from disadvantaged schools. (That’s why disadvantaged schools tend to be hit harder when layoffs strike, as the newest teachers are the first to go.) Even if schools get similar amounts of cash to spend, imbalances in teacher experience mean that San Diego Unified ends up investing less in impoverished schools.

This new information adds another dimension to a debate that has long simmered in San Diego Unified. Recently the school board grappled with how to divide up federal money for disadvantaged students. The arguments swirled around whether its very poorest schools needed more funding. This new information brings up another, often overlooked issue: The gap in teacher experience between affluent and disadvantaged schools actually costs poor schools, even if it doesn’t show up in their budgets.

I plan to keep digging into this data. Want to help? Check out the full study. You can also read more about these results from the New York Times and Washington Post blogger Valerie Strauss.

Emily Alpert is the education reporter for What should she write about next? Please contact her directly at

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Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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