Given the multitude of state accountability requirements and standards, school equity and efficiency is being debated while attempting to serve students during a financial crisis.

Apparently there’s not much of a limit on what stakeholders are asking or will continue to ask of schools—and therein lies the genesis of any fiscal crisis.

Even though people will continue to disagree on what a fiscal crisis actually is, two primary concerns will emerge.

These are the two prevailing ideas that face any district or school struggling with school equity and efficiency during a financial crisis.

  • How can we equitably distribute the resources we have?
  • How efficiently can we use them?

Unfortunately, the vast majority of people interested in the distribution of education resources don’t agree on the meaning of the term equity. Equity to some people means we’re going to count the number of kids and divide that number into the amount of resources we have.

On the other end of the spectrum, someone might say that we need to acknowledge that students are individuals and that learning plans have to be differentiated; therefore, students need differentiated amounts of resources.

A good example is a child with special needs. Imagine the neediest of these children. He or she may receive $150,000–$200,000 worth of education services a year, whereas your regular education student may receive only $10,000 a year.

Many will say that the child with special needs requires those services, and that’s fair. However, others may say it’s unfair because one child is receiving $200,000 whereas another is receiving only $10,000.

With schools under accountability requirements to raise student achievement, these individuals may ask whether giving that $200,000 to 20 general education kids instead would give schools more bang for their buck.  Now, that’s a school equity and efficiency argument.

Should schools improve the situation of those least advantageously situated and risk not reaching accountability standards? Or should schools focus on generating high test scores, high graduation rates, and high college attendance rates? Or, ultimately, should schools support individuals with high earning potential who can be taxed and whose tax dollars will be reinvested into society?

These types of difficult issues emerge more prominently as budgets get tighter.

That’s why the concept of fiscal crisis in public schooling gets complex, confusing, and hotly debated in a hurry because all the players—from the governors, to state legislators, to education personnel, to parents, to special interest groups—have different perceptions of the two primary personal values of school equity and efficiency.

school equity and efficiency You can see the reality of school equity and efficiency counternarratives in discussions surrounding the expansion of charter schools.

Imagine suburban, white parents who support alternative public schooling options taking this point of view: “If our child is not being served in a particular public school, for us to make a more efficient use of our resources and our child’s time, we’re going to enroll him or her in an academic charter school because the school’s primary focus is on instruction.

We know that these education efforts will lead to high test scores, college attendance, and high future earnings.”

On the other hand, you also hear these very same arguments in urban areas where greater proportions of low-income families and people of color reside. Some parents here might say, “We really do believe in public education—and we have for a long time.

But because of the continued low performance of our neighborhood school, lack of quality teachers, and lack of equitable educational opportunities, we’re going to enroll our child in an academic charter school because we know the school’s primary focus is on instruction. And we know these educational efforts will lead to opportunities to attain high test scores, college attendance, and high future earnings.”

These parents support charter schools not because of any school equity and efficiency argument, but from an equity perspective—from a desire for increased educational opportunities.

Keeping these types of individual values in the back of your mind, it’s also important to look at the structure of the state funding system. You don’t have to be a school finance expert to just ask the question, What pieces of this formula are important to the state, and are these same pieces of the formula important to districts, schools, and children?

For example, your district may need to expand the school day because you have lots of single-parent families and there’s no component in the state funding (or local revenue) that addresses that issue.

By the same token, you may have a program that’s been funded for 20 years that’s now obsolete and needs to be eliminated. Talk with your state legislators, school board members, and principals and ask why certain things are in—or not in—the formula. Get educated on school equity and efficiency, then determine the issues that are important to you and ask lots of questions.

Despite the current financial climate, I’m still quite optimistic about public schools. I’m still a strong believer that public schools can provide positive outcomes for the vast majority of children.

I believe that most legislators, district personnel, teachers, and community leaders still believe in the primacy of successful public schools even though they may value different approaches to school equity and efficiency.

People begin to walk down political paths to education policy success by having honest and open discussions on issues of school equity and efficiency.

Discuss how schools can craft equitable opportunities into efficient learning practices for students, teachers, and administrators, ensuring productive education systems.


HowToLearn.com thanks Anthony Rolle for contributing to ASDC.org

Rolle is professor at University of South Florida’s College of Education and chair of the college’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. His primary research explores relative measures of economic efficiency for public schools.