Faculty studying role of funding in exacerbating educational inequality

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Personal experiences inspired several College of Education faculty members to study racial and economic inequality in education.

Matthew Kelly Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

For Matthew Kelly, assistant professor of education (educational leadership) in the Department of Education Policy Studies, teaching in underfunded schools helped shape his career trajectory as an educational researcher. Kelly said he was angered by the lack of resources in the New York public schools where he taught and the fact that students of color were already “being marginalized by so many different policies.”

“Being a middle school teacher in New York City, nothing compares to how hard that job was,” Kelly said. “It was much easier to get a Ph.D. from Stanford than to continue to do that work. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life and ever will do.”

Ericka Weathers Credit: Photo ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

Ericka Weathers, assistant professor of education (educational theory and policy) in the same department, also witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of systemic inequities in a community. She grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, a city, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, where 30% of its residents live in poverty and 82% are Black and/or Hispanic.

“Coming from an area that is predominantly Black and poor, I often think about how educational inequality showed up there, how educational policy, generally designed to improve education, fell short,” Weathers said.

Both Kelly and Weathers have devoted a significant portion of their academic careers to studying the role of government funding in reducing or exacerbating educational inequality. The colleagues recently published separate research papers that document trends in school funding in the richest districts in the United States in recent years (Kelly), and how racial segregation and racial socioeconomic disparities are related to racial disparities in school district revenue and spending (Weathers).

Kelly’s current research examines long-term trends in how state governments distribute educational resources opportunities, as well as the intersections between school funding and inequities of race, ethnicity, income and residence.

Kelly’s paper, “The Curious Case of the Missing Tail: Trends Among the Top 1% of School Districts in the United States, 2000–2015,” investigates trends in the relative wealth of the richest school districts in the United States between 2000 and 2015. He reports that districts in the top 1% of national school funding distribution are disproportionately suburban, affluent and white. In addition, the relative wealth of these districts increased sharply (31.59%) between 2000 and 2015.

In his paper, published in Educational Researcher, Kelly argues that researchers of educational inequality often do not pay enough attention to “what’s happening with the wealthiest school districts and the implications it can have for all school districts.”

Weathers’ research focuses on understanding the causes and consequences of racial and socioeconomic inequality in education, with particular focus on two overarching questions: What are the contexts and associations that allow educational inequality to exist; and what are the impacts of educational policies on student outcomes?

In the paper, “Separate Remains Unequal: Contemporary Segregation and Racial Disparities in School District Revenue,” Weathers and co-author Victoria Sosina, an education researcher with SRI International, reported that increases in racial segregation, net of racial socioeconomic segregation and other racial differences between districts are associated with racial disparities in revenue. The paper was published in Stanford cepa, the journal for the Center for Education Policy Analysis.

“If revenue is changing in the context of racial segregation, what does that mean for how school districts spend money?” Weathers said. “If districts have less money in the context of increasing segregation, what do they do?”

Last Updated November 17, 2020