Low-Income School Districts Need More, But Many Are Starved Instead

Isaiah J. Poole

Fairness in school funding is “the sleeper civil rights issue of our time,” says Leadership Conference on Civil Rights president Wade Henderson. But it’s clear from a new report by the Education Law Center that this issue comes with a loud alarm: In many states around the country, the children who need the most support in order to succeed in school are actually getting the least.

Not only have states been generally slow to restore the cuts to public school funding that they made during the 2007-2008 economic downturn, but there are often extreme disparities between the per pupil spending in wealthy school districts and low-income districts.

“In Vermont, Wyoming, and North Dakota, high-poverty districts receive only about 80 cents for every dollar in low-poverty districts, while in Nevada high-poverty districts receive a startling 48 cents to the dollar,” the report said. Eleven other states had “regressive” funding patterns, 10 states had no significant difference in funding between low-income and high-income districts, and 15 states had “progressive” funding practices that resulted in low-income districts receiving more per pupil than higher-income districts.

“The four most progressive states — South Dakota, Delaware, Minnesota, and New Jersey — provide their highest-poverty districts, on average, with between 30% and 38% more funding per student than their lowest-poverty districts,” the report said.

Why does this matter? Because a child born into poverty needs more public support than a child born into a financially well-off family. Study after study has drawn a direct correlation between student achievement and poverty. When a child is less likely to have educational resources at home, is less likely to have a well-educated parent with the time to help the child learn, and is more likely to come to school malnourished, it makes sense that public school funding steps up to compensate.

Or so one would think.

The reality is that the way school systems are funded – primarily through local property taxes – guarantees that wealthy districts will have more to spend on their children than districts with concentrated poverty, unless states intervene to require that money from wealthy districts be used to help elevate children who don’t have the same advantages.

For those who think there is a red state-blue state contrast on this issue, the reality is mixed. Among the states that get an “F” in school funding fairness includes the blue state of Maryland as well as deep-red Texas and swing states Iowa and Pennsylvania. The states with an “A” rating include Louisiana, but that is no doubt the result of vigorous fights between school activists and Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is a leading proponent of “school choice” and critic of public schools.

It’s also important to note that some states – Florida is a good example – appear to be more fair in distributing school funding only because their across-the-board cuts in public school funding hit wealthy districts harder than low-income districts. “Funding in Florida’s wealthiest districts dropped over $3,400 between 2007 and 2012, while the highest-poverty districts lost less than $700,” the report said.

Another school funding measure the report examines is “effort,” or the percentage of a state’s gross domestic product that is devoted to education. That index ranged from a high of 5 percent in Vermont and West Virginia to a low of 2.3 percent in Delaware.

“Even with improvements in the economy, few states are translating that economic growth into greater investments in school funding,” the report said. “While total GDP has rebounded to 2008 levels or higher in all states except Nevada and Wyoming, 20 states invested fewer total dollars into the education system. Despite the economic rebound in most states, the Effort index remains below 2008 levels in all states except Connecticut, Wyoming, Illinois, and West Virginia.”

In the face of statistics like these, you can expect at least some of the Republican presidential candidates to say – as former Texas Gov. Rick Perry infamously did during his 2012 campaign – that the federal Department of Education is one of the agencies they will remember to say they will shut down once in office. It’s a promise that should not necessarily be taken literally, but it serves as a proxy for the mindset that these systemic funding inequities between states and between rich and poor districts within states are not a national concern.

But, as the report concludes, “sustaining investments in education is important to the long-term vitality of a state’s — and the nation’s — civic and economic health and well-being.” Making sure that we’re not only spending what we should on education but assuring that the students who need the most get the most should not only be a state responsibility, but a top national priority.

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