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The gap between rich and poor schools grew 44 percent over a decade

Growing money gap across 30 states

Photo of Jill Barshay

Education by the Numbers

The growing gap between rich and poor is affecting many aspects of life in the United States, from health to work to home life. Now the one place that’s supposed to give Americans an equal chance at life — the schoolhouse — is becoming increasingly unequal as well. I’ve already documented the startling increase since 2000 in the number of extremely poor schools, where three-fourths of the students or more are poor enough to qualify for free or discounted meals (see here), and I’ve noted the general increase in poverty in all schools here.

But now there’s new evidence that poor schools are getting increasingly short-changed by the states and localities that fund them. The richest 25 percent of school districts receive 15.6 percent more funds from state and local governments per student than the poorest 25 percent of school districts, the federal Department of Education pointed out last month (March, 2015).  That’s a national funding gap of $1,500 per student, on average, according to the most recent data, from 2011-12. The gap has grown 44 percent since 2001-02, when a student in a rich district had only a 10.8 percent resource advantage over a student in a poor district.

The funding gap between the poorest and richest 25% of school districts in each state during the 2011-12 school year. Red and orange states are where students in rich districts receive more funds than students in poor districts.

(Use arrows to navigate and click on any state to see student spending data. Interactive map created by Jill Barshay of The Hechinger Report. Source data: School district current expenditures per pupil Table A-1 FY2012, NCES)

I keep specifying “state” and “local” funding because the picture gets more complicated when you factor in federal funding. Once you do, almost all of the funding gaps disappear. But the Department of Education says that’s a problem. “Federal dollars were never intended to act as an equalizer for an unfair playing field set by state and local dollars,” said a U.S. Department of Education official, who said she was required to speak anonymously. “They are explicitly intended to supplement.”

Dating from President Johnson’s War on Poverty, federal education dollars are meant to give needy children (along with non-native English speakers and those with special needs) extra resources to help them catch up to their wealthier peers.

But most states have never created a level playing field, and new data show that it’s getting worse at a time when we’re asking schools to raise standards and demonstrate test score gains.

Change in the funding gap between 2001-02 and 2011-12. Red and orange states are where the gap widened to the benefit of students in rich districts.

(Use arrows to navigate and click on any state to see student spending data. Interactive map created by Jill Barshay of The Hechinger Report. Calculated from School district current expenditures per pupil Table A-1 FY 2012 and FY 2002, NCES)

To be sure, there’s a certain amount of quibbling over the data and how spending per student is calculated. Each state crunches the numbers differently and it’s often difficult, especially with administrators and technology that are shared across districts, to figure out exactly how to attribute dollars to each student.  An advocacy group, The Education Trust, released its own report in March, 2015, calculating that the state-and-local funding gap between rich and poor districts was only 10 percent, after adjusting for cost of living differences. Yet in another, more controversial calculation, it found an 18 percent funding gap between rich and poor.

Even within states, there are methodological changes from year to year. So it’s hard to say with certainty, for example, if the funding gap between rich and poor in Nevada more than doubled from 7 percent in 2001-02 to 15 percent in 2011-12, as the National Center for Education statistics reports. But the national trend is clear, when across 30 states you see a growing money gap between rich and poor districts.

“All of these reports are showing, in different ways, that our system for funding education, where states control 90 percent of the funding, is broken and dysfunctional,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center and an attorney who frequently sues states over unequal school funding on behalf of poor families and school districts. His organization is scheduled to release a report in May 2015, and Sciarra says his data will also show a worsening financial picture for poor schools.

Following the 2008 recession, tax revenues fell and state lawmakers were forced to cut budgets, including funds for education. “That tends to impact the neediest districts because they are most reliant on state aid,” explained Sciarra.

Poorer districts often saw sharp decreases in their local property tax base, as well. Not only did they lose state aid, they couldn’t finance their local share of the school budget either. In wealthier districts, property taxes were declining, too, but they were still high enough to finance schools.

Tax revenues have since rebounded in many regions, but Sciarra says he’s not seeing a similar rebound in state education spending. “It doesn’t appear that states are restoring their recessionary cuts,” he said, blaming statehouse politics.

The funding gap between the poorest and richest 25% of school districts in each state during the 2001-02 school year. Red and orange states are where students in rich districts receive more funds than students in poor districts.

(Use arrows to navigate and click on any state to see student spending data. Interactive map created by Jill Barshay of The Hechinger Report. Source data: Table A-1. Current expenditures minus federal revenue other than Impact Aid per pupil in membership, by poverty 2001-02, NCES)

Unequal education funding is a long-standing problem in the United States. The Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that disparities in school funding aren’t a violation of the constitution. School financing works differently in every state. The states that rely most heavily on local property taxes tend to have the biggest disparities between rich and poor.  According to the latest Department of Education data, Pennsylvania leads the nation in inequity with a 33.5 percent funding gap between rich and poor.  Other states with inequitable funding include Illinois, Missouri, Vermont and Virginia. Among advocates for the poor, New York has a reputation for being particularly unequal, but the latest data put its gap at under 12 percent, below the national average.

The problem with funding-gap analysis, to my mind, is that you’re always going to have wealthy communities, such as Scarsdale and Princeton, that want to spend a lot on education. That’s fine. Just because they’re spending a lot (or buying Louis Vuitton bags for their children) doesn’t mean that states should have to dip into taxpayer funds to match this extravagance for poor communities. And on the other end of the spectrum, there are states that are underfunding education for everyone. Just because, for example, California gives low-income schools 3.5 percent more funds per student than high-income schools doesn’t mean it’s doing a good job financing education when, overall, students in California — one of the most expensive states in the country — are getting $1,700 less per student than the average in the rest of the country.

It kind of makes you wish for a federal takeover of the educational financing system. No one is suggesting such a radical change, but advocates for the poor hope to insert a provision in a new education bill, being drafted in the Senate this week, that would require states to finance schools comparably between districts, not just within districts, as is currently the law. But it’s the kind of provision that could easily end up on the cutting room floor during final negotiations.

This article also appeared here.

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Jill Barshay

Jill Barshay, a contributing editor, writes a weekly column, Education By The Numbers, about education data and research. She taught algebra to ninth graders for… See Archive