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Diversity Toolkit: Class and Income

Found in: Teaching Strategies

Vast class and income differences exist in the U.S. today - and there is mounting evidence that differences are widening to an extent not seen since the 19th century. These class and income differences lead to differences in school funding across states and districts, which in turn, result in differences in school quality and, ultimately, in students' learning.

Main Issues

Because 90 percent of K–12 education funding comes from state and local sources, students' access to a quality education varies depending on the states and communities in which they live. For example, K–12 funding from state sources ranges from a high of 71 percent in Minnesota to a low of 30 percent in Illinois, and funding from local sources—primarily local property taxes—ranges from 96 percent in Connecticut and Rhode Island to 38 percent in Louisiana.

According to NEA Research, inequities in student funding ratios have been as high as 3-to-1 in many states—with property-rich districts having per-student expenditures three times as high as property-poor districts. The inequities have led to lawsuits on the grounds of equity and adequacy, which NEA Research defines as follows:

  • Equity is about fairness in per pupil spending; in the condition of school facilities; and in student outcomes. A funding system that is equitable does not provide equal dollars for all students, but instead promotes fairness by providing more dollars per student to districts with above average numbers of at-risk students, including English Language Learners; districts where the cost of living is higher than average so they can offer competitive employee salaries; and small districts that, on a per student basis, have larger administrative overheads.
  • Adequacy means the amount of per pupil resources needed to provide all students with a realistic opportunity of meeting state performance standards. This means providing students with the resources they need to obtain the knowledge and skills that are assessed by the standards.


Realizing that adequacy can never be achieved by focusing on school funding in isolation from other economic realities, NEA Research developed NEA's TEF Strategic Goal. TEF integrates three concepts: 1) Tax structures; 2) Economic development policies; and 3) Funding for public education. TEF's central premise is that a fair and equitable tax system; a level economic development playing field for business; and adequate and equitable funding of public education will provide public schools with the resources they need to do what is asked of them.

To address class/income differences in their states and communities, NEA Research recommends that NEA affiliates and members:

  • Argue for tax structures that are fair, broad-based, stable, and in sync with our economy. Taxes for the poorest 20 percent of Americans are twice as high as for the richest 1 percent. On average, the richest pay about $5 of every $100 of income in state and local taxes while the poorest pay about $11.
  • Advocate for adequate and equitable school funding, the first step toward building schools' capacity to do their job. No state currently provides adequate or equitable funding for its public schools.
  • Seek state and local economic development policies that level the playing field for business. Currently, big business enjoys tax subsidies, without accountability or regard to the impact on schools and children, while small businesses struggle to compete. All businesses should have a fair chance to compete in the new economy.

Related Links

  • EDStats - Rankings of the States 2008 and Estimates of School Statistics 2009. NEA Research's resource that tracks school funding and statistical information.
  • Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education - Economic research on the benefits and costs of alternative educational policies and interventions. (Teachers College, Columbia University)
  • Educational Policy Institute - Policy analyses of the consequences of government action (or inaction) related to addressing class/income differences and other issues; offers alternatives.


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Diversity Toolkit